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Sun., April 10, 2005

Information key to school security

The case of the 14-year-old Spokane student who has been charged with attempted first-degree murder of a Ferris High School teacher raises valid concerns among teachers, students and parents. Exacerbating the uneasiness is the unwillingness of the Spokane Public Schools to find the answer to an obvious question: How many students who have been expelled for making threats have been transferred to other schools?

The district said it doesn’t have such information readily available and that pulling it together would be too time-consuming. That’s not a comforting response. If the district truly does not keep such records, it’s time it started. And it ought to find a way to legally share that information with school staff members who could potentially be in harm’s way.

Jacob D. Carr was expelled from Ferris after sending teacher Michelle Klein-Coles an e-mail that stated, in part: “your house, all your belongings and you will be burned to the ground.”

Carr spent 30 days in juvenile detention. The district then granted him a transfer to Shadle Park High School after conducting a risk assessment. Citing student privacy laws, district officials would not discuss the details of Carr’s case, so it is unclear who at Shadle Park knew about Carr’s violent threat. Typically, the principal, vice principals and counselors at the receiving school would know those details. Teachers at either the old or new school would not be informed.

As the Carr case makes clear, teachers need to know the identities of potentially violent students. Carr has told police that he grew angry with Klein-Coles because she “disrespected” him by telling him to be quiet while letting other students talk. Any teacher would want to know the identity of a student who is set off so easily.

When Carr learned that Klein-Coles had discussed the threat on a radio show, he stole a gun from his mother’s boyfriend, wrote a suicide note and set off to find her. Carr says he got within 6 feet of her but didn’t pull the trigger because he feared nearby adults would prevent him from killing himself.

It’s possible that he would not have gotten that close had school staffers been informed of his identity. As one Ferris teacher said: “I must have walked right by that kid in the hall and not known who he was.”

The district told The Spokesman-Review that in the 2003-04 school year it issued 318 long-term suspensions, 20 expulsions and 274 emergency expulsions. In the age of computers, it can’t be that difficult to also know how many students have been transferred to other schools after threatening violence.

The district needs to re-examine its information policy to bolster school security and to give everyone greater peace of mind.

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