We knew this would happen…again. The tragic shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut was bound to trigger heightened sensitivity to anyone and anything that seems to be even remotely threatening. While we should all be thinking about what can be done to keep our schools safe, we have to be careful that we do not react in a way that produces, rather than prevents, harm to students.
Some students with disabilities are at particular risk of becoming victims of hyper-vigilant policies and practices. The other day an obviously-distressed parent called because her son’s school was planning to conduct a “threat assessment” on her son after he drew pictures of guns during class. My guess is that this was not a new behavior for this child, but it was now seen as threatening after being viewed through post-Newtown lenses. This child had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the parent was (rightfully) worried about what he would say when questioned by the school’s guidance counselor and principal. There are several things about that situation that should give one cause for pause, but I will approach the topic at hand with recommendations rather than criticism.
The very first thing to do is talk to your children about school safety and how the behavior of individuals can be seen as a sign of problems or threats. Even if the child does not fully understand why someone would consider their comment, joke, writings or drawings to be threatening, you have to give them specific examples of behavior to avoid. Mention or representations of guns, knives, bombs, explosions, killing, etc. are topics to be avoided anyplace except home. Even if the child is studying a time of war in a history class, they should limit their comments to the specific questions being asked (ex. no speculation about what could have happened if the good guys had a super hand-held weapon that could wipe out hundreds of people with the press of a button). We can encourage imagination in other forms, as well as other interests for those children who seem preoccupied by violent themes.
If you have a child that likes to carry or use a pocket knife, sticks, rocks or anything else that could be considered to be a weapon, check their pockets and backpacks frequently to make sure that they don’t accidentally or intentionally end up bringing something to school that will get them in trouble. Keep in mind that when weapons, drugs or serious bodily injury are involved in a disciplinary action, a student can be removed to an interim alternative educational setting even when the behavior is found to be a manifestation of the child’s disability. Such removal is not required though, and school administrators have the authority to look at each incident on a case-by-case basis.
Be proactive! Review your school system’s Code of Conduct, and disciplinary/school safety policies. If you see glaring problems with the policies, address them with your School Board. If the policies include the possibility of a required “threat assessment”, make sure that the assessment will be done by qualified individuals with expertise in mental health and any disabilities that the child may have. Even if your school system’s policy does not clearly state such a requirement, you should raise that issue if your child becomes involved in this type of situation. Some disabilities can impact the child’s ability to truly understand the questions that will be asked and how his answers might be interpreted by others. The disability may also have contributed to the behavior itself. Those making decisions about how to respond to a potential threat should have enough knowledge and experience to understand all of the factors involved, and take actions that are appropriate to each specific situation. One-size-fits-all does not work for special education and it also does not work for discipline or school safety!