From the looks of it, it appears as if every time a student in Flagler County schools makes a threat to kill, an arrest and a felony charge follows, the sheriff repeats law enforcement’s “zero tolerance” for such threats, and local media report on the arrest.
But the public is seeing only part of the story. The way schools in Flagler County and across Florida now handle security threats on post-Parkland campuses is not nearly as draconian as those arrests make it appear. The reason: there is a contradiction in Florida security laws passed in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February 2018.
On one hand, the Legislature toughened the law against those who make threats to kill, resulting in what seems like automatic criminal charges for those who do. More than a dozen Flagler County students have faced such charges between last year and this year, with two so far this school year.
On the other hand, Florida law now also requires not only that all school districts have “Threat Assessment Teams,” but that they adopt and run according to Dewey Cornell’s threat-assessment tool–what’s known as the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines.
The assessment guidelines are designed to give school personnel a tool to prevent campus violence and school shootings. The guidelines are also explicitly designed to reduce reliance on zero-tolerance approaches, which Cornell says can have the opposite of their intended effect.
“We had a child who chewed his pop tart into the shape of a gun and was suspended from school,” Cornell, who is opposed to zero-tolerance, told a PBS interviewer. “After the Sandy Hook shooting, a first grader in Maryland went pow-pow with his finger and was suspended from school. These are fearful overreactions that send a really negative message throughout the school.” He added: “We’ve done a series of controlled studies over the past 15 years, showing that when schools use our model, their suspension rates go down, their bullying goes down, and the threats aren’t carried out.”
On Tuesday, the Flagler County School Board heard from its risk management director, David Bossardet, and senior administrator Earl Johnson who, along with Board Attorney Kristy Gavin, attended and got certified in Cornell’s threat-assessment training. Gavin and Bossardet have since held four training sessions in the district for 90 individuals who now form each school’s threat assessment team. Bossardet and Johnson were updating the board on the latest security recommendations the board is due to adopt later this month.
The threat-assessment team discussion was brief, touching generally on the legal requirements and what the teams mean. But a look behind the generalities reveals a more complex, nuanced and deliberate approach now in place to address all campus-based security threats, and to address them with reasoned care, counseling and help unless they rise to a level of seriousness that warrants more drastic interventions.
If several students have been arrested and faced charges since last year, it’s not necessarily been because the threat assessment teams recommended it, but because when threats are reported directly to the sheriff’s office, law enforcement is required to respond according to law–not with a threat assessment team, but with its own investigations and arrests. The result is often cases that circumvent school-based assessment teams that would not have led to the student’s arrest. And in fact Gavin confirmed that in the majority of cases, students do make threats but are never arrested because the threat-assessment team approach doesn’t have to be that punitive.
“You’re assessing whether or not the individual truly poses a threat–not whether they made a threat, but whether they pose a threat,” Gavin said, and whether the threat was “transient, serious or very serious.” A transient threat is the majority of threats: it’s when a student tells another something along the line of “I’m going to kill you,” but without gauging the words, without the plans to carry out the threat, let alone the means to do so. There’s nothing behind the threat. “That’s when you have that teachable moment, ‘words have meaning, we don’t just throw these words out there,'” Gavin said.
A serious threat can be more specific–like a challenge to fight or hurt somebody at a certain point, which can also be a ploy for attention. The assessment team is then “assessing what interventions need to be made to assist this child, to assist this student in making better decisions using a support system that maybe they don’t have, using mental health counseling, because there’s something going on in their lives,” Gavin said. “It’s putting things back into perspective, the way it should be. It’s also realizing that we also have kids who, like I said before, they say things in the heat of the moment, perhaps at various ages they don’t understand what they’re saying. They’re just parroting things that they’ve heard and as a result of that, they’re making statements that really have no meaning to them, or they have no way of carrying it out, they have no method, no plan, there’s no thought process to it.”
The Dewey Cornell approach is “an evidence-based program, that’s why they chose to use it at the state,” Gavin said.
Each school’s threat-assessment team is made up of an administrator, a counselor or a psychologist, an instructional faculty member, and the school’s resource deputy. If the student in question is in special education, then a special education faculty member is also added to the team. The team doesn’t always gather for every threat: some are dealt with by the dean or individual administrators if they don’t rise to the level of triggering an assessment. Otherwise, every threat must be documented and filed at the district and with the state–including threats made by adults on campus, whether parents, other visitors, or school employees.
The inherently measured approach by the team is not seen as contradicting law enforcement’s mission. “They understand and they’re very appreciative that we’re not getting them involved,” Gavin said of the school-resource deputies. “They understand the process.”
The idea is to be better aware and apply a more caring, counseling and preventive approach than an exclusionary or alienating one, like suspensions. “You don’t prevent a forest fire by waiting until the trees are all ablaze, you pay attention to all the campfires, you make sure all the campfires are taken care of,” Cornell told the PBS interviewer. “And we have incidents of bullying all the time in our schools, and the more that we can do to deal with these minor conflicts before they escalate into more serious ones, the better off we’ll be.”
Bossardet echoed some of those words as he summed up the security recommendations to the school board Tuesday, which included recommendations from first responders to provide better points of access to campuses while also hardening certain campuses, putting up more fencing, strengthening certain doors and windows, reducing the visibility of staff and students from people outside of campus, and so on. (The school board will hold a closed-door session later this month to examine the recommendations in more detail.)
“Obviously we want to address all the results, all the requests we’ve received from our first responders,” Bossardet said. “But I know in conversations with our school board and Mr. Tager in particular,” he said of Jim Tager, the superintendent: “Physical hardening of our campuses is a major concern, but in order to truly create a safe and secure environment, we need to make sure we’re addressing the social, emotional well-being of our students and our staff. So our recommendations for next steps moving forward, as I said, address the recommendations from our first responders in terms of the physical hardening of our campuses, provide additional training for staff in order to not only properly identify but also address students in crisis as well as those who pose a threat to the school’s community; expand our students’ crime watch program similar to the one that Future Problem Solvers started at FPC with our Bulldog Patrol, we’d like to see that continue throughout campuses in our district, and just continue to promote the importance of reporting suspicious activity.”
Watch An Interview With Dewey Cornell: