School threat policy called `model' effort

Local handling of violent signals gains wide attention

In place before Columbine

Educators, police, mental health staff form partnership

Carroll County

April 15, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When a South Carroll High School senior was suspected of threatening to kill several classmates last month, he ran up against an aggressive and well-vetted policy for dealing with threat-makers that has attracted attention from school systems and law enforcement in Maryland and the region.

Since January 1998 - more than a year before the deadly rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado focused the nation's attention on school violence - Carroll County has had a policy for dealing with students accused of making threats in school. The addition of assertive policing and mental health workers further distinguishes Carroll.

Pupil services director Cynthia Little acknowledges that students have been suspended under the policy for "doing something stupid," such as jokingly suggesting that they're going to kill a classmate, but she and others say it's a message that needs to be sent to keep schools safe.

"This [policy] was in response to our concern about kids saying things that they maybe necessarily didn't mean," Little said.

"It's not unusual to hear kids who don't like each other or a kid who gets angry to say, `If you do that to me again, I'm going to kill you.' That's something that we as a society have accepted, but we as a school system believe we need to say to kids that we take that seriously. If we err, we're going to err on the side of taking it too seriously."

Having a policy on threats in schools is not uncommon, said Dr. James P. McGee, director of law enforcement and forensic services at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.

"Most school systems have violent-threats policies. The problem is that there is a great distance between the policy and the implementation," said McGee, who has traveled across the country in recent years speaking about his study, "The Classroom Avenger," an examination of a dozen school shootings between 1993 and 1998.

He described Carroll County's policy and implementation as a "model program" and an example of what can be done through a partnership among school officials, law enforcement and counselors, with a retired Maryland State Police captain bridging the often distinctly different worlds of police work and education.

"The mission of threat assessment and law enforcement is so far afield of the mission of education that it's really asking too much of educators to do it," McGee said. "As soon as a threat is made, it should be turned over to law enforcement. We depend on them to protect our kids 18 hours a day when they're out of school. Shouldn't we also depend on them to protect our children in school?"

Zero tolerance

Under Carroll's zero-tolerance policy, any student who threatens to kill or inflict serious harm on a classmate or staff member is suspended for one to three days and referred for a mandatory violence assessment. After a second offense, a student is suspended for five days and must complete a violence prevention program. A third-time offender is suspended for 10 days with a recommendation that the superintendent order a long-term suspension or expulsion.

Those rules could get tougher as school officials consider whether to make completion of counseling a requirement - rather than a recommendation - in response to recent community complaints that the policy is too lenient, Little told the school board last week.

Unlike school systems where McGee said the natural tendency of principals might be to contain a problem within the school, Carroll County calls in the police for every serious threat.

"It's not that we investigate every one, but we do need to know about them," said Lt. Terry L. Katz, commander of the state police's Westminster barracks. "In quality-of-life crimes, and that's what threats are, you solve the little ones to prevent the big ones."

He compared the county's threshold for tolerating threats to that of an airport.

"There, you can't joke about having a bomb or a gun ... . Kids need to understand that schools are even more important than airports," he said.

Drawing notice

The collaborative, preventive effort has caught the eye of educators and law enforcement officers across the region.

Larry Faries, who spent 28 years with the state police before joining the Carroll schools in 1999 to streamline coordination between schools and law enforcement and to focus attention on school security issues, has talked to a number of jurisdictions about Carroll's security measures, including the threats policy.

He has made presentations to the Maryland Association of School Security Professionals, a conference for school guidance counselors, the Maryland Crime Prevention Association, and school and law enforcement officials in Frederick, Garrett and Montgomery counties.

He also has received requests from the Delaware State Police and several counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore and plans to schedule presentations this summer. And he fields calls "all the time" from school districts as far as Boise, Idaho.

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