It has been a year since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Texas. As many media outlets are reporting, although the shooting was supposed to be the one that “changed everything,” threats to school safety continue to be a fact of life in American schools. Yet there is much that we can learn and do in this constantly-evolving area, particularly as it relates to students with special needs. How do you properly address school threats from students receiving special education? If you will be at IAASE, you can come discuss this and other student mental health concerns with Franczek attorneys Jennifer Smith and Mary Deweese during their February 21 session on Mental Health Support for Students: The Legal Framework. We also hope you will join us for a unique opportunity to discuss threat assessments during our complimentary half-day conference on Assessing Risk of Violence: Effectively Evaluating Threats to School Safety with Dr. Nancy Zarse, an expert on threat assessments, at Elmhurst College on February 28. In the meantime, this blog post addresses what we think is the key issue to consider when addressing school threats from students with special needs. Read on to confirm that you are complying with this essential consideration.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a threat from a student who is or may be identified as a student in need of special education is that the special education process and the threat assessment process are separate. Threat assessments, on the one hand, are aimed at mitigating risk by identifying students who pose a threat. The special education process, on the other hand, is aimed at connecting students with disabilities to services and supports they need. Although one process may inform the other in some cases, it is essential to divorce the two processes from each other to ensure compliance with the unique requirements of each.

For this reason, threat assessment and special education meetings, such as evaluation or IEP meetings, should not be combined. The threat assessment process for a student who is suspected of needing or who has an IEP will look much the same as the threat assessment process for a student without a disability, although the student’s special education status of course may come into play in considering whether the student is a threat. However, if a student who is identified as a potential threat does not have an IEP, but the incident underlying the need for a threat assessment raises suspicion that the student may be eligible for special education services, the student should also be referred for a case study evaluation, pending parental consent. If the student has an IEP at the time of the incident underlying the need for a threat assessment, an IEP meeting likely should be convened to review the student’s IEP and assess whether additional services, evaluations, and placements should be considered. If the student has a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) and Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), it should also be reviewed or, if the student does not have an FBA and BIP, the team should consider putting one in place.

Why do we think the separation between the threat assessment and special education process is the most important thing for school leaders to consider when addressing threats by students with actual or suspected disabilities? When schools attempt to combine these processes, important elements of the process are likely to fall through the cracks. To decrease the risk of noncompliance, consider these processes to be separate and distinct.