The isolation of spring 2020 sent Lindsay Richmond’s 13-year-old son AJ into severe depression.

Born with a traumatic brain injury, he’d been diagnosed in kindergarten with a serious emotional disability and severe ADHD. Stuck at home during the early months of the pandemic, his mental health declined.

That fall he was briefly admitted to a psychiatric hospital after threatening to hurt himself — just after he started seventh grade at Sobesky Academy, a public school in a suburb of Denver. While at the hospital, he got into a fight with another resident his age, and the facility pressed charges for felony assault, according to a later state investigation.

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The hospital notified the school. On Sept. 18, Richmond received an email from the Jefferson County School District: AJ was suspended while the district evaluated his risk of violence, a formal process known as a behavioral threat assessment.

AJ spent the next eight months out of school with limited virtual instruction, while his mother argued with the district that his rights as a student in special education were being violated in the name of school safety.

“My son has always really liked school because he really does like that interaction with his peers and other children his age,” said Richmond. “So taking him out of that network, it really does hurt him.”

Threat assessment teams — typically teachers, mental health providers, and law enforcement officials — use specific protocols designed to pinpoint emerging or imminent threats and stop violence before it happens. When teams use these protocols correctly, proponents say, schools are safer and the school environment is more tolerant. Some research supports this view, but there’s no evidence to date that use of the protocols prevents school shootings. And advocates say the process disproportionately targets students already at risk of not succeeding in school. Students in special education, in particular, are more likely than their peers to face a threat assessment, and some have been denied protections they are owed under federal law.

Still, policymakers increasingly see the use of threat assessment teams as a viable way to prevent mass shootings. In August, New Jersey joined 18 other states that require school districts to have such teams. Nearly every other state, including Colorado, encourages districts to adopt them. In 2018 Congress allocated federal funds to train schools on threat assessment. Twin bills introduced in Congress in 2021 would expand that funding further by authorizing the Secret Service to set up a national program to research school violence prevention and provide training on the threat assessment process. (The Senate passed its version out of committee in September, but the House companion hasn’t moved since its introduction.)

Behavioral threat assessments have their roots in a Secret Service protocol re-configured for schools after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Since then, three main programs have emerged that follow similar approaches, said Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and principal author of the most-studied model. In addition, some states have developed their own versions.

Generally, after an incident occurs or staff receive a tip — say, a student gets into a fight or posts on social media condoning the use of violence — a team uses a structured process to gather information, interview the student and witnesses, and decide on a threat level to assign the student. Threat assessment teams are usually trained in this approach. For example, in Virginia, where the use of threat assessment protocols is mandatory, team members are required to get up to a full day of instruction.

Threat assessments of less serious incidents might result in an apology from the student or a referral for mental health services, said Travis Hamblin, director of student services for the Jordan School District in Utah. More severe offenses, as when the student brings a weapon to school, can lead to an intervention plan that might include more intensive mental health services or a referral to law enforcement, plus suspension, expulsion, or legal consequences.

But the goal of an assessment is to figure out why a threat was made and give students what they need to get back on track, not necessarily punish them, proponents say.

In AJ’s case, Richmond said the threat assessment team met over video with her and her son for just 10 minutes to ask questions: How did he feel about coming back to school? What would he do to make sure an incident like that at the hospital didn’t happen there? How depressed was he feeling?

The district did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A few months earlier, according to a state report provided by Richmond, AJ had once threatened to knock another student down to steal his belt; his special education team had stepped in and concluded he posed no threat of harm to himself or others. But after the episode at the hospital, the threat assessment team determined that AJ was an ongoing safety threat due to a history of “concerning behaviors,” according to the state investigation, which was prompted by a complaint Richmond filed with the Colorado Department of Education. The district decided to ban him from in-person classes.

Under federal law, a student with a disability cannot be removed from school for disciplinary reasons unless the school has proved — through a review called a manifestation determination — that the behavior that triggered the removal was not caused by the disability. But the district claimed that AJ wasn’t being removed for a disciplinary violation, so no review was required, according to the state report.

AJ’s pediatrician, psychiatrist, and guardian ad litem all asked the district to reconsider, arguing continued isolation would worsen AJ’s mental health, said Richmond. None of his behavior appears to fit on a list of predictors of violence — like talking about a school attack or trying to obtain a weapon — that appears in Colorado’s model school threat assessment policy.

From September 2020 to April 2021, AJ sat at home, getting on average less than two hours of daily live interaction with teachers. Richmond tried for months to get the district to send her the threat assessment report and finally gave up, she said.

“They kind of just treated me like I was in denial and that he was a threat and I was crazy,” said Richmond. “I felt very alone.”

It’s unclear how often school districts use threat assessments in a way that may conflict with legal protections required by federal disabilities law, in Colorado or nationally. A review by The Hechinger Report of complaints to the Colorado Department of Education found that district threat determinations appeared to flout disability law in at least four other cases since 2015. In addition, three other parents of Colorado students with disabilities told Hechinger that the threat assessment process failed their children. One student was suspended for minor infractions after an assessment. In another case, the student’s special education team wasn’t involved in the threat assessment review. In the third case, the school didn’t provide due process during the threat assessment, the parent said. No Colorado state agency collects data on school threat assessments, nor is any such information collected nationally.

The state education department referred questions about those complaints and whether changes are needed in the state’s approach to the Colorado School Safety Resource Center. That center offers voluntary threat assessment training to schools. Center director Christine Harms said by email that she couldn’t comment on specific complaints but affirmed that the center trains schools to include special education professionals on their threat assessment teams in cases involving students with disabilities to ensure federal laws are followed.

Research in Virginia and Colorado by academics, including Cornell, suggests complaints like those lodged by Colorado parents likely aren’t isolated cases. Two studies show students with disabilities are up to four times as likely to be subjected to threat assessments as others. Additional research in both states found mixed disciplinary outcomes: Two analyses found students were more likely to be suspended, and three found no significant differences.

Meanwhile the pressure schools face to prevent violence is real: In 2022 there were 285 school-shooting incidents in which a gun was brandished or fired, or a bullet hit school property, the most of any year since at least 1970, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database compiled by the Naval Postgraduate School. Schools risk lawsuits if they have even the slightest indication that a student is a safety concern and do nothing.

A few weeks after a school shooting in Maryland in March 2018, state legislators passed a law mandating threat assessment teams in schools. Megan Berger, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, said her organization was concerned that the policy would conflict with federal special education law.

Now those fears are being realized. One of her clients, an 18-year-old senior, has already been transferred from his school, apparently in violation of federal protections. He has a confirmed disability, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, which can result in ongoing irritability and anger and frequent, intense outbursts of temper.

In mid-February 2022, he was suspended for 10 days from his Maryland high school after he threatened to beat up a school employee who had ordered him out of a bathroom. (His name and that of the school are being withheld out of his mother’s concern for retaliation against his siblings.)

The school extended the suspension for an additional eight days while a team from the district completed a threat assessment, according to a state investigation into the proceedings.

The district held the legally required manifestation determination meeting and found that the student’s outburst was indeed caused by his disability. But, according to Berger and a report of the investigation, it ignored that finding and barred the teen from returning based on the threat assessment’s conclusion that he posed a threat.

Instead, the district transferred him to a vocational technical school, where he took vocational classes in person and his academic classes virtually for the rest of the year. His mother, Veronica, said the special education team that worked with her son wasn’t directly involved in the decision, nor did team members speak up about the process — one of the student’s special educators told Veronica she feared for her job.

Her son would never set foot in his high school again. “They took the rest of his 12th grade year from him,” said Veronica. Asked for comment, a district representative said federal privacy laws prohibited her from discussing individual students or their discipline records.

Cornell, the University of Virginia professor, said there’s a reason that students with disabilities are subject to more threat assessments: They make more threats. Some of these students need services for aggressive and impulsive behavior. It is not surprising to those who work in special education, he said, that “these students would be more likely to make threats than other students.”

Dan Stewart, a managing attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, said that type of argument overlooks the underlying reason why students with disabilities may be making threats. When students with disabilities do something aggressive or impulsive, they need help from their special education team to figure out what’s causing the behavior, not a threat assessment, he said. Federal law already has a process allowing schools, working with a student’s special education team, to temporarily remove students if they pose an immediate danger, he added.

There is evidence that at least some approaches to threat assessments may positively affect schools’ safety climate. A 2015 peer-reviewed study, for example, found that schools using Cornell’s model had lower rates of student bullying and other aggression and that teachers reported feeling safer.

Hamblin, the student services director in a Utah district, said his district’s program, based on Cornell’s guidelines, emphasizes problem solving. Teams want to address the underlying issues that students might be experiencing — bullying, for example — before they escalate into violence, he said. And for staff, having a protocol takes the emotion out of deciding what to do. According to Cornell, studies show students receiving special education services have lower rates of suspension in schools with threat assessment protocols than they do in schools not using them.

Even some who see the value in threat assessments say they can be too easily misused.

Peter Mosby is principal at Rock Ridge Elementary School in a suburb of Denver. His son Chas, who is 17 and has ADHD and a serious emotional disability, was the subject of a threat assessment this fall when staff at his high school said they saw arrows in the back of Chas’ truck, said Mosby.

Staff searched the truck and found a flare gun with empty shell casings. The dean of the school, Grandview High School in Aurora, told Mosby they were considering expulsion. Chas overheard, lost his composure, and cursed at and aggressively stepped toward a school administrator, according to the school’s threat assessment report.

But Mosby said that report was inaccurate and lacked context. Chas is serious about archery, which is why there were arrow shafts in his truck. The report mentions that he had “one or two episodes” of previous violence, which Mosby disputes. And the report classifies Chas as a high-level threat, though the circumstances don’t meet the definition, Mosby said.

Abbe Smith, spokesperson for the Cherry Creek School District, said by email that the district “very diligently” followed the threat assessment process and stands by the “determination and the facts outlined in the threat assessment report.” She said federal laws protecting student privacy prevented her from further comment.

In the end, Chas was not expelled. But Mosby said he has no way to correct claimed errors in the report, which will stay in Chas’ record.

Despite Chas’ experience, Mosby acknowledged that, as a school administrator, he finds threat assessments useful. “But like any tool, it can also be abused,” he said. “You have schools that do not want students with disabilities in their population.”

Even as the use of threat assessment protocols has spread across the country, research on the new tool has been conducted in only a handful of places: Dallas, Memphis, four Colorado districts and statewide in Virginia.

“I’ve been calling for other states and other models to do research for years and years,” said Cornell. He’s working with others to develop standards for threat assessment programs that will include guidelines on training staff, selecting a program, and ensuring an equitable impact on students with disabilities and students of color. “I hope when that’s done it will be a guidepost for schools so that they don’t just call whatever they do a threat assessment,” he said.

Advocacy demonstrating the harm threat assessments may pose to students with disabilities could be having an effect. New Jersey’s new law requires that threat assessments of students with disabilities include their special education team to make sure legal requirements are met. And the U.S. Department of Education, in school discipline guidance issued in July, noted that schools can’t use threat assessments to circumvent the procedural safeguards of federal disability law.

Education equity advocates are demanding that the federal government do more to learn the scope of the problem. In comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in September 2021, a group of 50 organizations, including the National Disability Rights Network, asked that the department start collecting systematic data on the demographics of children being referred for threat assessments and then disciplined or referred to law enforcement as a result.

In the spring of 2021, after Richmond, AJ’s mom, filed her complaint with Colorado’s education department, the district allowed AJ to come back to school in person. But there were conditions: He could attend only one class and had to be accompanied everywhere on campus by a school police officer, said Richmond. She had to quit her job at a hospital to ferry AJ back and forth on the odd-hours schedule.

Richmond ultimately took AJ out of the district and moved him to the Denver public school system, where he was allowed to attend school full time. “They were like, ‘We have absolutely helped children with his needs before,'” she said. “They just welcomed him with open arms.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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