The number of students in Texas accused of making terroristic threats or exhibiting a firearm increased significantly in the first five months of 2018 compared with last year, according to a new report from Texas Appleseed.
The report's co-author, Morgan Craven, director of the nonprofit's School-to-Prison Pipeline Project, said there was a large spike in February after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. While some of those threats were real, she said, legal action in other cases was too extreme.
“We saw a large number of kids who were being referred to juvenile probation for behaviors like pretending to shoot aliens in a hallway or making inappropriate comments,” she said.
A terroristic threat is any threat of violence to someone’s body or that threatens the safety of a public place. Exhibition of a firearm is any threat of using a firearm or showing a firearm.
Between January and May, there were 1,212 referrals for terroristic threats across the state; during the same period in 2017, there were only 473 reports.
The same five-month period this year saw 259 referrals for exhibition of firearms, which means either showing a gun or threatening to use one. Last year, there were 37 reports of these kinds of threats during that time period.
The study found that black students were disproportionately reported for these crimes and that some of the students who went through the juvenile justice system had diagnosed mental disabilities. The report also found that school staff were referring more younger students to authorities, with the largest increase among 10-13-year-olds.
Craven said she understands why school employees are hypervigilant when a student threatens violence, but her organization wants to see better training for staff to address behavior that isn’t a real threat.
“We can’t arrest and charge these kids – often with felony offenses,” Craven said. “Instead, we need to use what we know works to actually address the behavior and provide what students need to actually change their behavior.”
The Texas Senate’s Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security discussed this kind of intervention at a hearing Wednesday. Senators heard from mental health experts from across the state about how to prevent school violence. Many presenters discussed the role of school counselors.
“I believe that they are the most misused personnel on what they’re trained to do,” said Sharon Bey, counselor coordinator for the Texas School Counselor Association. “Schools are not required to hire a school counselor, and on many of our campuses, school counselors are so inundated with non-counseling and administrative duties that they have little time to deliver such a comprehensive school program.”
Bey asked lawmakers to mandate that counselors focus only on student mental health.
The committee, created after the deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School in May, meets for the final time Tuesday.