With violence in national spotlight, school officials discuss protocol

A student draws a picture in which figures have knives sticking out of them and tells a classmate if he doesn’t leave him alone, he’ll make the drawing a reality.

Childish misbehavior or potential violence?

Local school and legal officials agree that in an age when school violence like the 2012 shooting deaths of three Chardon High School students by a classmate is fresh in people’s minds, nothing can be taken for granted.

“Investigate every single situation,” Fort Frye Local Schools Superintendent Stephanie Starcher said. “Whether you think it is valid or not, you still, as an administrator, investigate it.”

An incident like the one described above was reported to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office recently, and led to a deputy on Nov. 6 requesting a summons for the 12-year-old student to appear in Juvenile Court on a charge of menacing, along with a count of assault for striking a child on a school bus. The sheriff’s release did not indicate which school was involved, noting only that the student was a Vincent resident.

Another incident included in a recent sheriff’s office release involved a Barlow-Vincent Elementary student who reported on Oct. 24 that a female acquaintance at school threatened to kill his parents. The release said the student was serving an in-school suspension for previous threats and was suspended for five days because of the newer incident. The release did not indicate any further legal action.

Warren Local Schools Superintendent Kyle Newton said he could not discuss specific situations, citing confidentiality rules. In general, he said, he’s impressed with the risk assessment protocols of the Warren district, of which he became superintendent in August. Addressing such situations isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition, he said.

“The whole array of discipline can be used, from in-school suspension to changing the structure of a student’s educational day, up to and including expulsion,” Newton said.

The district utilizes a program called “Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence,” said Tricia Hawkins, Warren’s school psychologist.

“This program follows a system of interviews and data collection that will allow us to determine if a threat is transient, a threat that is not as serious and can be easily resolved, or substantive, a threat that raises concern of potential injury to others,” she said.

Newton declined to address whether the two incidents reported by the sheriff’s office fell under either the transient or substantive category, saying that would disclose too much information.

The building principal is the first one to assess a threat and after speaking with those involved may determine it is of a transient nature, Hawkins said.

“Some students make threats as a joke, in the heat of a competition … a statement that’s not meant to be taken seriously,” she said.

In those cases, school officials can work with the student to help them determine more appropriate responses, understand why they were wrong and take responsibility for their actions. If they do that, they can still be subject to discipline, Hawkins said, but it’s a positive sign that indicates the situation is likely not a serious one.

If a threat was more specific, indicating the student had thought about it, or the child had a history of violence or threats and access to weapons, “we would feel like that was a substantial threat and bring in law enforcement,” Hawkins said.

In addition to disciplinary action, Hawkins said the district works with local counseling and mental health agencies to link families with programs or offer services at the school. Newton and Starcher both emphasized that discipline is only one part of the process.

“The child may just honestly need some emotional and social support,” Starcher said.

Taking a student out of school with a maximum 10-day suspension or a longer expulsion does not address the entire problem, Starcher said.

“Expelling a kid doesn’t remove the safety threat,” she said. “That child is still in the community.”

If a threat situation does reach the law enforcement and juvenile court stage, even then there are options to consider as far as whether and how to charge a child.

“No kid is the same,” said Amy Graham, assistant Washington County prosecutor.

During the process, behavioral issues may come out and the court will be able to help families get services they need, such as counseling or refer the family to Children Services, Graham said.

“A lot of them have got mental issues or there’s something underlying,” she said.

The factors that school administrators must consider are also weighed when it comes to imposing discipline on a child, said Washington County Juvenile/Probate Judge Timothy Williams.

“Generally it’s going to be probation, counseling, some community service,” he said.

If the threat was serious or the youth has previous charges, juvenile detention could be an option, Williams said.

Williams said threats are not a major problem in the area, but they must be taken seriously because “you never know.”

He said so far this year, the juvenile court has handled 10 assault cases, eight menacing cases, 10 disorderly conduct by fighting situations and two incidents of knives at school. That’s compared to 21 assaults, four menacings, five disorderly conduct by fighting and four incidents of weapons on school property. Williams said the incidents could not be broken out according to which ones happened at a school.

The differences in numbers are normal fluctuations and in some cases may be due to officers charging similar incidents differently, Williams said.

Washington County Career Center Secondary Director Mike Elliott said another area of threats that school officials must deal with is social media.

“What I’m finding more and more, it’s not happening so much at school, it’s happening on social media and then the concerns are brought to school,” he said.

Online situations can result in school discipline if they have an impact at school, Elliott said.