Maggie Gaines understands why her daughter’s teacher at Valley Forge Elementary School went to the principal after the 6-year-old pointed her finger at the teacher like a gun and said, “I shoot you.”
What she doesn’t understand is why she and her husband had to end up on a conference call with the Tredyffrin Township police the next day, giving their names and ages to an officer.
“‘You don’t understand, this is insane,’” Gaines recalls saying.
Gaines was told that her daughter, Margot, who has Down syndrome, had triggered a threat assessment by the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District — and that, under district policy, school officials had to call police.
"They feel they need to contact the police to find out if a student might have something else in the community they might not know about,” said Gaines, who lives in Wayne. “All right, but my daughter is 6, and in kindergarten. Are you trying to tell me you think she’s out running around the rough streets of Tredyffrin doing something?”
The incident involving Gaines’ daughter happened in November, but became public in late January when she attended a school board committee meeting and criticized district policy as criminalizing "age-appropriate, nonviolent behavior of elementary students.” Last week, a copy of her statement was shared on Facebook, drawing more attention.
One of Pennsylvania’s top-performing districts, Tredyffrin/Easttown covers an affluent area of Chester County. The district declined to comment on the incident but said a school board committee was evaluating its policy.
Advocates see the district’s actions as emblematic of a broader problem with schools over-reporting student behavior to the police — an approach they worry is reinforced by a national push for schools to preemptively identify threats and prevent violence.
“This is a real setback,” said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. He said excessive involvement of police in schools could make students less likely to report concerns to adults: “This is not a process that’s going to catch the next school shooter.”
Formal threat assessment efforts — advocated by the U.S. Secret Service — have been a growing trend in school districts. Tredyffrin/Easttown formed teams in November 2018, according to the district.
Pennsylvania last year passed a law requiring all districts to form threat assessment teams by 2021 to intervene with students "whose behavior may indicate a threat to the safety of the student, other students, school employees, school facilities, the community or others.”
An advisory group to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency tasked with helping create guidelines for districts to carry out the new law identified “a growing need for multidisciplinary threat assessment and specialized mental/behavioral health intervention teams in K-12 schools,” noting increased reports by Pennsylvania students of peer harassment and violence.
Jordan, a member of that group, was critical of some its guidance — including that "a kid doesn’t have to make an explicit threat or statement” to trigger the threat-assessment process.
Still, Pennsylvania’s law does not require district threat assessment teams to involve police while evaluating reports. “I don’t think you can blame the law” for how Tredyffrin/Easttown handled the Gaines’ situation, Jordan said.
Tredyffrin/Easttown says it follows school threat assessment guidelines developed at the University of Virginia. The district “utilizes this evidence-based model to identify, evaluate, and respond to student threats,” spokesperson Chris Connolly said.
At a school board committee meeting last week, Mark Cataldi, the district’s director of assessment and accountability, said the T/E officials had consulted with Dewey Cornell, an education professor and forensic clinical psychologist at UVA who developed the model and “stood by involving law enforcement as part of the threat assessment teams."
Cornell “also emphasized flexibility," and said law enforcement didn’t necessarily have to be involved every time, Cataldi said.
To board members, Cataldi suggested that “perhaps we have consideration to define consultation" — referring to the district’s policy, which says that each district school “will establish a threat assessment team comprised of school and district personnel to oversee the threat assessment process and consult with law enforcement.”
Gaines — who doesn’t fault her daughter’s teacher or principal — viewed the discussion as the district “doubling down” on its policy, rather than backing off of its requirement that threat assessment teams contact law enforcement.
Gaines said the district’s team had determined her daughter made a “transient threat,” with no intention to harm anyone, and recommended no disciplinary action. School staff involved in Margot’s individualized education plan viewed the incident as isolated, Gaines said.
“I think most people would agree that this is where the issue should have ended,” she said in her statement to the school board committee.
She and her husband have retained a lawyer who has written a letter to the board, seeking a change in policy and the expungement of an incident report they say police took about their daughter’s finger gun.
“It’s just upsetting,” said Gaines, who works as a reporter for a national technology website. Her husband works in data security, and they don’t like the idea of their daughter’s information “sitting in a database.” Tredyffrin police did not return messages seeking comment.
While concerns over how schools refer students to police aren’t new, some districts appear to be using threat assessment "as further justification for their move to call the police,” or to remove students from school through suspensions or disciplinary transfers, said Margie Wakelin, staff attorney with the Education Law Center in Philadelphia.
Students of color and students with disabilities are “disproportionately impacted” by such policies, Wakelin said — noting some schools have identified students with autism for threat assessment because they appeared withdrawn in class.
Wakelin said the situation in Tredyffrin/Easttown isn’t the first time she’s heard of police being called in response to young students, including instances in which children have drawn guns or written things in diaries.
For Tredyffrin/Easttown, “it’s just nonsensical to think you would have a policy in place" that doesn’t allow school staff to use discretion in involving police, Wakelin said.
Gaines said that she and her husband don’t have guns in their house and that there was “no way in the world” her daughter would be able to carry out any threat.
“And yet it was still reported,” she said.