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Schools can't reveal a lot when one kid threatens another 

A right to know?

click to enlarge Parents want to know dangers their kids face at school, but privacy laws limit disclosure. - PRIXEL CREATIVE /SHUTTERSTOCK
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  • Parents want to know dangers their kids face at school, but privacy laws limit disclosure.

Melanie Anderson sent out an email Oct. 20 to local media outlets saying she was "fit to be tied."

She had been informed by a student at Mitchell High School, she wrote, that a child who had brought a gun to school on Oct. 18 had been targeting her teenage son. While Anderson noted that she had received a letter from Colorado Springs School District 11 about the incident after the fact, she stated that the school hadn't told parents when the armed kid was still in the building. She also wasn't sure if the child who brought the gun to school had been punished. And, she wrote, when she emailed the principal, he "treat[ed] me like i [sic] have no right to question whats [sic] going on."

Anderson agreed to be interviewed in depth by the Independent, but we had trouble reaching her.

Nevertheless, Anderson's experience sheds light on a topic that might be of concern to many parents — especially in today's era of tightened school security and mass shootings. The question central to her concerns: What, exactly, is a school required to tell you when another child does something that threatens your kid, such as bringing a weapon to school or making threats?

As it turns out, privacy laws dictate that schools can't tell worried parents much, D-11 spokesperson Devra Ashby says.

"There are some things that we cannot tell [the other parent]," Ashby says, adding that she knows that can be frustrating or even scary.

In the case that Anderson is referring to, for instance, Ashby says, "Believe it or not, that minor that did choose to bring the gun to school, they have rights too. So we have to be very careful to abide by the law and make sure that both sides are protected."

Thankfully, no one was hurt on Oct. 18 at Mitchell High.

According to a Colorado Springs Police Department press release, a CSPD school resource officer assigned to Mitchell immediately responded to reports that a child had brought a gun onto the school grounds. Together with D-11 security officers, the officer found the weapon on a 15-year-old male student. The kid was charged with Unlawful Possession of a Weapon on School Grounds and Unlawfully Carrying a Concealed Weapon, and was booked into Spring Creek Youth Services Center.

Mitchell Principal Carlos Perez told the Indy that parents were not notified when the child had a gun on the campus because he was caught almost immediately after staff were made aware of the threat. Instead, Perez says, staff sent an email and a letter to parents the same day.

"First I want to assure you that the safety of all students and staff is the top priority at Mitchell High School," the letter began.

It went on to briefly explain the incident, note that the weapon had been seized, and that "[d]ue to privacy matters, we cannot discuss this situation in detail." It also provided a phone number to reach Perez with any questions.

While Anderson wasn't satisfied with the response she got from D-11, she had more information at her disposal than a lot of parents whose kids are threatened on school grounds receive.

A year ago, D-11 updated its weapons policy to reflect the Colorado Association of School Boards policy, Ashby says. D-11 previously had a zero tolerance policy for weapons, but the change allowed administrators more flexibility in punishing kids in most cases (the district still has a zero-tolerance policy for guns).

The upside of the change, Ashby says, is that kids are no longer getting expelled for simple mistakes.

"Basically what it did is, for example, if a kindergartner inadvertently brought a steak knife to school to cut his sandwich in half, he's not going to be expelled because of the no-tolerance part," she says.

The downside, however, is that it's less clear what happens to kids who may pose a threat to other students. And that can be scary for parents of a bullied or targeted kid.

"If it was ... like brass knuckles or something," Ashby says, "that child could be suspended for so many days, and we can't tell the other parent [of the targeted child] how long that child is suspended for. You know what I mean? Because we have to allow that child their privacy."

Police spokesperson Lt. Howard Black says that while schools often can't reveal a lot about a juvenile to the public, police face no such restrictions.

"If there's a child that's being targeted, and there's a credible threat, then we have a conversation with the children and families," he says. "You don't keep that kind of thing secret."

But Black says that despite Anderson's concerns, he didn't think that was the case with the Mitchell incident. The child who brought the gun to school, he says, was apparently bringing it for protection against a bully. He hadn't threatened anyone with the gun, but had shown it to a couple other kids. At least one of the kids reported the weapon.

Ashby says she can't say how D-11 chose to punish the student who brought the gun to Mitchell — that would violate his privacy. But she did say that D-11's punishment for bringing a gun on campus is expulsion.

So Anderson can likely rest a little easier.

In cases where a kid brings a weapon to school but isn't expelled, Ashby says the district tries to work with parents and students to ensure safety. So if one kid is bullying another, for instance, the bullied child could be put under a "safety plan" that might include, say, taking a different path to class or having a group of kids watch out for him.

The bully, meanwhile, would face escalating punishments.

But for that system to work, Ashby says, kids have to report bullying so that the district knows it's a pattern.

"They're always willing to work with families if there is a pattern established, but that's the key thing right there," she says.

The district has several ways to report bullying anonymously, including telling a staff member, reporting it on the D-11 website or using the Safe2Tell system.

While weapons and bullying are scary, Perez says that it's important to remember that these are kids. Often, he says, if both sets of parents and students agree, he's able to bring in a mediator to help kids work through their problem.

Usually, he says, there are misunderstandings involved, or hurt feelings. And those can be worked through successfully as long as the district is aware of them.

"There's very few instances," he says, "where it doesn't get resolved."

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