When should a student’s threats of violence be taken seriously and when should they be taken with a grain of salt? That’s the dilemma a Texas middle school is facing this week, after a student’s graphic and threatening book, “Killing Children,” surfaced online, pushing frightened pupils and parents to press for his expulsion.
"I’ve been pretty scared because I don’t know what he’s going to do and what’s going to set him off," Jaden Gary, a seventh-grade student, told WFAA while protesting outside of the Tilman Middle School in Roanoke with her mom and dozens of others on Monday.
The eighth-grade student at the center of the controversy, who has not been named publicly because of his age, is accused of writing an 11-part story that details attacks on specific students, using knives, scissors, sexual assaults, and even a 7-Eleven Slurpee machine, according to parents who spoke with CBS DFW. “It’s very graphic,” Shawnteel Blodgett, the mother of a student killed in the book, told the news station. “I haven’t been able to eat or sleep, nor has my daughter. She’s very upset about that.” The student behind the writing was reportedly removed from school weeks ago by his parents, but he returned after spring break, prompting the protests and excessive absences on Monday.
The school’s assistant principal Steve Parkman did not return a call from Yahoo Parenting. But the district released a statement in which the father of the accused child said he was “evaluated for two weeks and then released.” In addition, superintendent Karen G. Rue told WFAA, “We take every student’s comments seriously. We investigate passing comments in hallways when students are rude to another; everything is taking seriously.” However, she explained, the district can’t do much because the book wasn’t written on or using school property.
Though that could be frustrating for parents to hear, it could very well be the case, according to Bernard James, a professor of law and education-law expert at Pepperdine University. “My guess is that the writing was created off campus and introduced to the school from the victims — and that, in most states, would tie the hands of school discipline,” he tells Yahoo Parenting, noting that different states have different laws regarding the degree to which schools’ codes of conduct and criminal law intersect. Usually, the two are autonomous and independent. And while “police tend to act on threats when they believe they’re real threats,” James says, “with juveniles, there’s often a grayness to the assessment.”
James highlights two recent cases that illustrate why schools tend to tread with such care when responding to threats: In one, a high school in Seattle was ordered to pay $1.3 million for its negligence in preventing the life-threatening stabbings of two students when school counselor records showed he’d been having violent fantasies. In the other example, the Beverly Hills School District suspended a student for cyber-bullying a classmate through a YouTube video; a United States Court Judge later found the school violated the first amendment rights of the student who posted the video, since it was created outside of school. “In one case, a school district acted too soon and had to write a check, and in the other a school acted too late and had to write a check,” James says.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there was confusion among local law enforcement officials in Texas over who was actually investigating the case at Tidwell Middle School, which straddles two districts. A spokesperson for the Denton County Sheriff told Yahoo Parenting that it was under Tarrant County Sheriff’s jurisdiction, while Tarrant County Sheriff spokesperson did not know of any such investigation and was looking into it for Yahoo Parenting.
“It’s scary to every parent, understandably, because we are in a climate today where we just don’t know,” national safety expert Ken Trump tells Yahoo Parenting. “Parents are left grasping for information and need some reassurance that they’re kids are safe.” Part of the problem in these types of situations is that many schools don’t have strict threat-assessment protocol, notes, suggesting that schools and law enforcement strive to be on the same page about when to take a student threat seriously. “The general rule is that the more detail and specificity, the greater the credibility,” he notes.
Student threats are rising, Trump found through a 2014 analysis of school-based threats, due in large part to social media. So it’s even more important to get a handle on their seriousness, he says. “People are always looking back and putting the pieces of the puzzle together after the fact. But we need to try to assess threats before something happens,” Trump warns. “You are going to be criticized either way, so while you don’t want to bring down the swat team for a kid who may use a poor choice of words, it’s better to take a little heat and be reasonably cautious on the front end.”