The Increase in Texas Student Arrests Following the Parkland and Santa Fe Tragedies
In the fall of 2006, 10-year-old Casey Harmeier was clowning around with friends in the hallway at school when he was dared to pull the plastic cover off of a fire alarm. When he did so and an alarm sounded, he was arrested and taken to juvenile detention. His father, who worked for the school district, was not notified of his arrest until four hours later. While Casey was initially charged with a felony offense, media attention and the ensuing public outrage eventually led to dismissal of the charges. But the trauma caused by the arrest was clear: in a journal entry after the incident, Casey spoke of the stigma of being arrested, saying he felt like a “disease” and a “vile monster.” In the same entry, Casey said he was scared every time he “left his parents’ sight.”
This incident, and others like it (including the arrest of a sixth-grade girl for drawing a heart and writing “I love Alex” in baby blue sharpie on the wall of her school’s gym) led to a series of bipartisan reforms at the Texas Legislature, meant to ensure that students would not face the same harsh consequences and ensuing trauma that Casey faced for what was age-appropriate misbehavior, rather than criminal behavior.
Today, the tragic school shootings in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, so close in time to each other, present an opportunity to either move Texas further toward research-based school discipline policies, proven to better ensure school and student safety – or, conversely, to move state and local policy backward, with regressive responses that are understandably rooted in fear, but that do more harm than good.
There are already early indicators of the potential for Texas schools and policymakers to take a wrong turn and move back in time to the “zero tolerance” approaches that have been disproven by research and experience. One of those indicators is the spike in charges filed against Texas students for “terroristic threat” or “exhibition of a firearm” (which does not require actual possession of a firearm), which started in the immediate wake of the Parkland school shooting and continued through the end of the 2017-18 school year.
Media coverage and information from attorneys representing students in these cases prompted Texas Appleseed to request data from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department for these two offenses. While it is always important for schools to follow up on any threat of violence, we heard stories from attorneys who represented children who had been arrested though they did not pose a threat, including:
- A 12-year-old blind student who reacted to a bully by threatening him;
- A 17-year-old student arrested and taken to jail for pulling the fire alarm at school;
- An 11-year-old student who receives special education services and who learns in a self-contained classroom threatened to “Tase” the teachers who restrained him during a meltdown.
- A 12-year-old student with a disability who was arrested and taken to detention for making a gun with his fingers and pretending to shoot make-believe creatures in an empty hallway at school.
Our data analysis confirms the spike in charges that we heard about anecdotally, showing:
- A dramatic increase in referrals to Texas juvenile probation departments in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, with a 156% increase in referrals for terroristic threat, and a 600% increase in referrals for exhibition of firearms. 66% of the exhibition of firearms referrals were for threatening to exhibit a weapon, not actual possession.
- The spike was borne most by younger students, with a 69% increase in referrals for terroristic threat and a 762% increase in referrals for exhibition of firearms for 10-13 year-olds.
- Black students are overrepresented in referrals, and were more than twice as likely as all other students to be referred to juvenile probation for terroristic threat or exhibition of firearms.
Though TJJD is not able to include information related to disability, anecdotal evidence also suggests students with disabilities are overrepresented in arrests.
While schools must respond to threats of violence, media articles that our team reviewed as part of our research for this report suggest that many schools are following a “zero tolerance” policy that fails to distinguish between students who actually pose a threat and those who have no ability or intention of harming anyone.
Texas Appleseed requested data from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department for referrals to juvenile probation for “terroristic threat” or “exhibition of firearms” for 2016, 2017, and January through May (the most current data available at the time of the request) of 2018.
From January through May of 2018, there were 1,212 referrals for terroristic threat and 259 referrals for exhibition of firearms. Referrals for terroristic threat in 2018 were nearly three times higher than they were in the same time period in 2017, and referrals for exhibition of firearms were seven times higher than they were in the same time period in 2017.
When assessing the data by school year, there is a large spike starting in February 2018 for both types of offenses, which did not occur in the previous school year.
Black students are overrepresented in referrals for these offenses, representing 24% of referrals for terroristic threat and 31% of referrals for exhibition of firearms, but only 13% of the student body population. Additionally, Black students are referred for both offenses at twice the rate of all other students. Male students are also overrepresented, accounting for 83% of referrals for terroristic threat, and 86% of referrals for exhibition of firearms.
Rate of Referrals for Terroristic Threat and Exhibition of Firearms by Race (January-May, 2018)
Most referrals for both offenses are for 13- to 14-year-olds, but the increase in referrals was the largest for 10- to 13-year-olds. In January through May of 2018, there was a 69% increase in referrals for terroristic threat and a 762% increase in referrals for exhibition of firearms for 10- to 13-year-olds when compared to all of 2017.
Most referrals for terroristic threat come from a school-based location. Assessed by county, Harris County had the highest number of referrals from a school-based location, accounting for 13% of all referrals for terroristic threat from a school-based location. Assessed by district, Houston ISD had the highest number of referrals from a school-based location, accounting for 5% of all referrals for terroristic threat from a school-based location.
Counties with the Highest School-Based Referrals for Terroristic Threat (January-May, 2018)
School Districts with the Highest School-Based Referrals for Terroristic Threat (January-May, 2018)
Lastly, most referrals for exhibition of firearms were for threatening to use a firearm (as opposed to actually possessing a firearm), accounting for 66% of all referrals for exhibition of firearms. Notably, there were no referrals for threatening to use a firearm in 2016 and only 5 referrals in 2017, but there were 170 referrals from January through May of 2018.
Research-Based Alternatives to Criminalization
Arresting students for behavior that falls short of presenting an immediate safety risk is indicative of a harmful zero tolerance approach to student behavior. There are a number of research-based alternatives that improve school safety but also show positive school- and student-outcomes. Many of these — like Schoolwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SW PBIS) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) — focus on prevention, creating safer schools by improving overall school climate. Others, like Restorative Discipline, focus on addressing the harm in a way that repairs and strengthens relationships in the school. Many schools in Texas have adopted these models, or are in the process of putting them into place – but effective implementation can take time.
Another model – school-based threat assessment – is included as a recommendation in Governor Abbott’s “School and Firearm Safety Action Plan,” and targets precisely the dilemma schools confront when a student makes a threat of violence. Particularly in the immediate wake of a school shooting, schools are understandably afraid of failing to take action, but overreacting can have dire consequences for a student. A research-based threat assessment model – implemented appropriately – allows schools to determine when a student’s behavior necessitates law enforcement involvement, and when it is instead more appropriately managed by referrals to counseling or other services. It is a proven, pragmatic, low-cost approach to addressing threats of violence that ensures schools neither overreact or underreact. As an added bonus, the model fits nicely within a SW PBIS, SEL, or Restorative Discipline program for those districts that are already putting those alternatives into place.
This model was born out of work done by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education to determine how to prevent school shootings. One of the six principles that forms the foundation of the model is central to distinguishing it from a “zero tolerance” approach. According to that principle, “the central question in a threat assessment inquiry or investigation is whether a student poses a threat, not whether the student has made a threat.”
The model relies on creation of a multidisciplinary team that consists not just of law enforcement, but also a member of the school faculty or administration, a mental health professional, and other professionals who regularly work in the school setting, such as teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors. Perhaps most importantly – when a threat assessment is being conducted, the model suggests the team should include someone who knows the student whose behavior is being assessed. The multidisciplinary nature of the team and inclusion of someone who knows the student ensures that the context in which the behavior occurred is fully considered. Rather than focus solely on the question of whether the student’s behavior falls within the elements of a Penal or Education Code violation, the team’s inquiry determines whether the student truly poses a safety risk.
One of the forensic psychologists who worked with the FBI and Secret Service to develop a threat assessment model for schools describes the difference between traditional threat assessment instruments and the model developed for schools:
The value of a research-based threat assessment model is in its ability to guide educators in distinguishing between “transient” threats, and “substantive” threats. The difference between the two determines the consequence and response from adults:
Transient threats include a variety of qualitatively different threats that are not serious. Some examples are a student shouting “I’m gonna kill you” as a joke or playfully using his or her fingers to shoot another classmate. Another student might say “I’m gonna kill you” as a competitive statement during a game. Still other transient threats are expressions of anger that do not reflect a serious intent to harm someone, such as a student stating rhetorically “I’d like to kill that jerk” in anger but not actually possessing an intent or plan to kill anyone...Transient threats can be provocative and disruptive, but from a threat assessment perspective, they do not reflect a real intent to harm others.
In contrast to transient threats, substantive threats are behaviors or statements that represent a serious risk of harm to others…[S]ubstantive threats are characterized by qualities that reflect serious intent, such as planning and preparation, recruitment of accomplices, and acquisition of a weapon. Examples of likely substantive threats include a student threatening “I’ll get you next time” after a fight and refusing mediation for the dispute, or a student who threatens to stab a classmate and is found to have a knife in his or her backpack.
Dewey G. Cornell, Overview of the Virginia Threat Assessment Guidelines pp. 2-3 (2018).
Use of a research-based threat assessment model shows the majority of threats (70%) are transient. A threat assessment model does not ignore transient threats, but the response would be proportional and would not call for the same response needed for substantive threats. Even “substantive” threats may not necessitate law enforcement involvement.
A zero tolerance approach that fails to distinguish between transient and substantive threats, arresting every student who makes a threat, makes poor use of expensive law enforcement and juvenile and criminal justice system resources and unnecessarily criminalizes students. Students may still face consequences for their behavior - but the consequence should be proportionate and aim to teach students why even a threat of violence is harmful. In the innumerable media stories reporting arrests of Texas students in 2018, many indicated that law enforcement had already determined that the threat wasn’t substantive.
Experts in its use emphasize that a school-based threat assessment model should be part of a tiered approach to campus safety, with the primary focus on prevention and creation of healthy school climates. The research conducted by the Secret Service uncovered the importance of “[c]ultures and climates of safety, respect, and emotional support” in preventing school shootings, finding that “[e]nvironments in which students, teachers and administrators pay attention to students’ social and emotional needs - as well as their academic needs - will have fewer situations that require formal threat assessments.” Threat assessments should not supplant approaches like SW PBIS, SEL, and Restorative Justice, but should become part of a continuum that includes them.
State & Local Policy Recommendations
The lifelong trauma and stigma of being unnecessarily arrested and charged with “terroristic threat” or “exhibition of firearms” can have a devastating impact on a student’s outcomes. Overreacting to threats made by students in frustration or anger does little to ensure school safety and may ultimately have the opposite effect.
Texas schools have an opportunity to instead embrace a research-based approach that addresses safety concerns, avoiding the potential harm to students.
- In 2019, the Texas Legislature should provide funding for research-based, multi-tiered approaches to school safety that include a threat assessment model, and require school districts to indicate in their safety plans which research-based approaches their schools are utilizing.
- Texas school districts should prioritize a tiered, research-based approach to school safety that includes a threat assessment team model.
- Texas schools should take advantage of the free training being provided by the School Safety Center this summer.