Law enforcement role in school threats debated

Several community members expressed concern that the district doesn’t notify police of every threat.

South Whidbey School District board members reviewed the district’s threat assessment procedure in the public board meeting July 14, but not every community member seemed reassured that the process was sufficient to protect students from danger.

South Whidbey School District follows the Salem-Keizer Student Threat Assessment System, a two-level process that utilizes school and community resources to determine the level of supervision and intensity of intervention required to decrease risk on a case -by-case basis.

The first step upon learning about a threat is to determine whether there is imminent danger; if so, the threat assessment team notifies law enforcement immediately.

Considerations in determining imminence include whether the threatening student has a plan, a motive or a weapon, or whether the student is in a teacher’s or parent’s custody.

Responses to threats, whether or not they pose imminent danger, are determined on a case-by-case basis, since each potential threat might require a different kind of intervention. Investigations and notifications of relevant parties are administered accordingly.

After the school board reviewed the procedure, the meeting opened to public comments.

Several community members in attendance at the meeting expressed their concern that the district’s policy does not involve immediately notifying law enforcement of every threat made.

Though school board Chairman Brook Willeford redacted student names from public comments as he read them to protect students’ privacy, a few commenters referred to a recent incident in which the school did not contact law enforcement after learning of a threat posted online, claiming the school was in violation of its own threat assessment policy.

Superintendent Josephine Moccia maintained that the school had followed policy.

“We knew immediately where the student was, the level of threat, and it was not an imminent threat,” she said.

One commenter suggested changing the policy to notify police of every incident, but board members clarified that there are several reasons not to do that.

The Salem-Keizer system, board member Andrea Downs said, comes with a “network of people who work in mental health and who understand the needs of students with these situations.”

“They’re actively working to reduce the involvement of law enforcement when it is not necessary,” she added. “They are absolutely for involving law enforcement when it is necessary.”

Willeford said this system also prevents the school from burdening local police with situations that trained threat assessment teams have already determined not to be dangerous.

Downs also noted that because of implicit biases people unconsciously hold toward those who belong to demographic groups other than their own, school administrators contacting law enforcement even when the system doesn’t necessitate it might tend to perceive minority students as more threatening than others.

“When we think about whether or not we are calling in law enforcement, we want to have systems and structures in place to check our ladder of inference and to ensure that we’re not engaging in unintentional bias,” she said, noting that the Salem-Keizer system comes with checks in place to mitigate those unintended biases.