By Michael Tucker, Attorney at Law
Since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, schools nationwide have seen a 300% increase in violent threats. (Educator’s School Safety Network). Local Educational Agencies (LEA) are now faced with very complicated decisions regarding students’ due process rights, public and campus safety, and a public who wants to know that students are being kept safe. Below are some options for LEAs to consider if facing a situation where a student has made a violent threat regarding a school campus.
- Contact Law Enforcement
In the event a violent threat is received, the LEA should immediately contact law enforcement. Not only is a violent threat likely a crime, but law enforcement has resources at their disposal to conduct an appropriate investigation. Additionally, law enforcement will likely have recommendations to help ensure the safety of everyone on campus.
- Follow Student Discipline Procedures
Under the California Education Code, a student can be expelled for causing or threatening to cause physical injury to another person or making terroristic threats against school officials and/or school property. Any expulsion recommendation must come from the superintendent or principal. School administrators should review their student discipline policies in the event a threat is received.
- Know Your Social Media Policy
Prior to searching social media for threats against your school, you should review whether your LEA has a policy regarding student social media searches. Specifically, prior to performing any such search, your LEA is required to notify parents of the program and provide an opportunity for public comment at your LEA’s governing board meeting. (Cal. Educ. Code § 49073.6.) If your LEA already has a policy in place, you may only use information gathered from a student’s social media account that “pertains directly” to school or pupil safety. Additionally, you are required to provide the student with access to any information gathered and give that student a chance to correct or delete the information. Moreover, you will be required to notify the student’s parent or guardian that the student’s information has been collected.
- Consider Special Education Implications
Even if a student’s behavior amounts to a violent threat, school officials must consider whether the student’s behavior implicates any of the laws governing students with disabilities. First, determine whether the student has a Section 504 plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If so, school administration must conduct a manifestation determination review within the legal timelines in order to determine if the threat was related to the student’s disability. Secondly, if the student does not currently have a Section 504 plan or an IEP, the LEA should consider whether the student should be assessed as part of the LEA’s “child find” responsibilities. Considering the threat in context of the student’s other behavior may be an indication of a suspected disability and a need for special education and related services. Finally, even if a student is not currently eligible for special education, in certain circumstances, LEAs are still required to ensure a student receives disciplinary protections under IDEA if the LEA had a “basis of knowledge” that the student might be in need of special education and related services.
- Protect Student Privacy Rights
Student privacy is protected by both federal and state law. (See 20 U.S.C. § 1232(g) and Cal. Educ. Code § 49076 et. seq.) These regulations often prevent an LEA from revealing “personally identifiable information” regarding a student. These protections also generally apply to students who may face discipline or who are being disciplined for making a violent threat. Therefore, while communicating the nature of a threat to the public, care should be taken to protect the student’s right to privacy. An LEA can generally inform the public of a threat so long as it protects the identity of the student accused of making the threat.