Nowadays when children strap on their backpacks and head to school, they’re entering a world where they have to understand and report potential threats.
Politicians and activists in recent years have been discussing the growing issue of school safety but at the local and state level, the topic of addressing threatening behavior hits close to home.
“Our role when we come to school every single day is to make sure people have a safe and welcoming learning environment,” said Stephanie Bourgeois, senior director of student services for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools. “That doesn’t change based on what’s in the newspapers.”
Some districts across the nation have adopted zero tolerance policies in regards to threatening behavior from students, according to a study from the National Education Association. Zero tolerance means predetermined punishments are given out in regards to specific threats, regardless of context or behavior.
Here’s how schools in Hampton Roads and the Peninsula go about handling the issue:
“We have a process where each case is looked at individually and they look at a number of factors,” Bourgeois said. “And a team decides how to handle it most appropriately.”
Each school in WJCC has a “Threat Assessment” team made up of administrators, counselors, a police officer and instructors. When there is a perceived threat, the team analyzes how to best administer the consequences of students’ actions.
Similarly in York County School Division, schools have teams that are trained on how to best handle threat assessments and consequences to students based on the Student Code of Conduct.
In each district, the Code of Conduct breaks down the definitions for various threats and their potential punishments at each grade level.
For example, in WJCC’s Code of Conduct a student in kindergarten through third grade can’t be suspended for more than three days unless they have committed a serious threat, such as possession of a firearm on school property.
But each potential threat is handled on a case-by-case basis with other factors considered, such as age and developmental understanding, Bourgeois said.
In YCSD, the goal is to make sure students understand threats not only so they can report them but they can prevent themselves from mistakenly making a threat.
“As a proactive approach, our administrators convey information about creating a safe environment and reporting information,” said Aaron Butler, YCSD’s director of school administration. “We have a preventative approach and then a proactive approach.”
Butler said there are assemblies each year that teach students what it means to behave or engage in threatening ways. The topic has grown in recent years to include behavior on social media which has started to become another platform in which threats might be expressed, said Katherine Goff, YCSD spokeswoman.
“So we regularly attend different training sessions…about new trends, what the kids are using and how they are going about using any kind of electronic device,” Goff said. “Because it’s these tools that then becomes the potential location for a questionable threat to exist.”
There’s also are information posted in each classroom about the methods of sharing concerns, an anonymous reporting form online and a hotline number to report potential threats.
Michelle Price, spokeswoman for Newport News Public Schools, said the district does not use the term zero tolerance policy.
However, it does not mean the school takes the threat less seriously.
Some examples of threats include bodily injury, threatening the school structure like shooting, bombing or threatening a person. For anonymous posts or social media threats, the police are called and work together with the district in the investigation.
“Anything that is any kind of statement, written or verbally shared or anything posted to social media that is threatening nature,” she added.
Similar to schools in the Historic Triangle, Hampton City Schools also use a Threat Assessment team when there is a report of an alleged threat from a student, said Kellie Goral, spokeswoman for the district.
Counseling, a safety plan, referral for a mental health evaluation, and alternative instructional service or placement are all possible actions Goral said the team could decide to take depending on factors, including the threat’s impact on the school environment and the circumstances of the incident.
Newport News’ and Hampton’s student handbooks outline the expectations for students and is available on their websites.
“Students and parents are required to sign a form annually which confirms that they have received and reviewed the handbook,” Goral said.
In the Code of Conduct & Due Process section of Newport News’ handbook, there are different levels of consequences for the student ranging from conferences, detentions and in-school suspensions to short and long term suspension and even expulsion.
Like in Hampton, consequences can depend on the age of the student and the severity of the threat.
“A lot of times they are doing something like this as a prank,” Price said.
For example, Price said if a 4-year-old student is playing and someone takes his pencil and the student exclaims “Give me my pencil back or I’m going to kill you,” the teacher would have to report the incident.
Once the incident referral form is complete, then there is an investigation and, if it’s a lower level offense, the principal recommends the consequence. For high level offenses, there is also a hearing with a hearing officer involved.
Price said when it comes to student consequences, students can appeal the decision if it’s a Level 6 or Level 7 offense.
She added parents can appeal to the principal if it’s a lower level offense.
As far as social media is concerned, Price said some of the schools have presentations on what constitutes as a threat and the school resource officer talks to students about social media safety.
Principals recently reminded students about social media safety and emphasized the importance of letting someone know about threats instead of retweeting or sharing the posts.
In Hampton, Goral said the schools maintain a Safe School Hotline and tip text line as tools for students, parents and community members to report incidents ranging from suspicious activity to bullying.
“It’s an easy, confidential way [to report] anything that may impact the safety or security of our students and school community,” she said.
“Years ago, threats were written on a piece of paper –– bathroom wall,” Price added. “Now there are so many ways that people can pass along something that is threatening or scary.”
WYDaily multimedia reporters Alexa Doiron, Julia Marsigliano and Lucretia Cunningham contributed to this report.