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Tennessee Is Ramping Up Penalties For Student Threats

After a former student killed six people last year at the private Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, state leaders have been looking for ways to make schools safer. Their focus so far has been to ramp up penalties against current students who make mass threats against schools. After the killings, legislators passed a law requiring students who make such threats to be expelled for a year (unless a school superintendent decides otherwise) and allowing schools not to enroll them afterward. This year, the legislature passed bills that make the offense a felony and revoke driving privileges for a year. However, a large body of research shows these zero-tolerance measures are not the most effective way to prevent violence in schools, ProPublica reports. Some experts say those measures can counteract what they consider a crucial tool for protecting students as well as the larger community: threat assessments. When carried out correctly, threat assessments sort out behavior intended to cause real physical harm from simply disruptive acts and provide troubled students with the help they need.

According to psychologist Dewey Cornell, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who led research on threat assessments, adapting techniques from the Secret Service and FBI for use in schools after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, zero-tolerance policies and threat assessments are “antithetical” approaches to handling school safety. Zero tolerance requires school officials to automatically punish students who act out, no matter the circumstances. Threat assessment, on the other hand, requires officials to consider the context and motivation of the behavior before deciding how to respond. There is no research showing that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer, according to a review of available evidence by the American Psychological Association. Such policies can harm Black students and students with disabilities, who are more likely to be suspended or expelled from schools with zero-tolerance discipline policies and, by extension, more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, studies show. Lawmakers are now considering a bill requiring a threat assessment to be completed and the threat to be deemed valid before an expulsion.


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