Student threats, return of expelled students pose challenges for schools

Under Ohio law, very few school expulsions are permanent, and most expelled students will return to their original school after 80 days.

That leaves schools with a challenge — how to educate and help troubled teens who may have hurt or threatened someone, at the same time working to ensure a safe environment for the rest of their students.

This issue is in a new spotlight after recent tragedies. Eighteen months ago, a teen killed 17 people at the Parkland, Fla., school from which he had been expelled. Three weeks ago, a Bellbrook man with a years-old history of school discipline killed nine people in Dayton’s Oregon District. This news organization and others are suing Bellbrook schools, which have refused to release records about the shooter’s school suspension.

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Many disciplined students bounce back successfully. But most area schools started just days after the Dayton shooting, and some parents are on edge.

A student’s vague social media comment this month triggered a major reaction from Oakwood schools because of a past police response involving that student. Oakwood officials stood by their decision to hold the student out of school and increase police presence.

“In the current climate, we must take all threats and potential threats seriously to ease the concerns of our community,” school officials said.

Threats all too common

In recent years, law enforcement agencies have taken school threats seriously — from bomb threats, to comments about bringing guns to school and even simple interpersonal threats. Many of these threats are made on social media, and dozens of local schools now use the Social Sentinel system to monitor those comments.

Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said his office has brought criminal charges against 78 people for school threats in the past 3 1/2 years. He said many are 14- and 15-year-olds who end up having school expulsion hearings a few days later while they’re sitting in juvenile detention.

RELATED: Students as young as 10 in custody for threats

After one of the 32 Warren County cases last year, Lebanon schools Superintendent Todd Yohey pleaded with kids and families to understand the severity of the issue.

“Students need to realize that there is no such thing anymore as an empty threat; no jokes, no kidding around, no ‘I didn’t mean it,’ ” Yohey said. ”The people who view your posts or overhear you make threats are going to report you. In Warren County, that likely means felony charges. Parents need to have serious conversations with their children about the consequences of making threats.”

Threat assessments

So how do schools handle it when a student returns from suspension or expulsion, sometimes after an incident that was fairly public, such as a bomb or gun threat?

Superintendent Chris Piper said Troy schools use a threat assessment protocol that follows a Secret Service model. A team including school administrators, teachers who are familiar with the student, Tri-County mental health and local law enforcement evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.

“When they return, they’re required to sit down with a school administrator and walk through whatever the threat was,” Piper said. “And there’s a plan put together by that team to help the student transition back to school. It’s up to us to support and monitor that student moving forward.”

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That can be difficult to accept for parents who want any student they perceive as a threat removed from school permanently. But Ohio law limits most expulsions to a semester or a year at most, and “permanent exclusions” are extremely rare, requiring the state superintendent’s approval.

Piper said the law spells out schools’ responsibilities, but that black-and-white text doesn’t satisfy everyone.

“It’s an emotional question. So we have to do our best to reassure people that we have a pretty good track record here, we build great relationships here,” Piper said. “Anytime someone sends their kids to school, or to anywhere, a bus stop or a movie, there’s some degree of trust that has to go into it. The better we can do to communicate proactively and reactively with parents, the more people are going to trust. It’s a big responsibility, and one we take seriously. There’s no easy answer.”

State law

In Ohio, out-of-school suspensions can be for a maximum of 10 days, with local school board policies deciding which offenses trigger what levels of discipline. Schools can also do an emergency removal without notice “if a pupil’s presence poses a continuing danger,” but that requires a hearing the next day.

Expulsions are 80 school days, with one-year expulsions possible for bringing a gun to school, making a bomb threat and a few other cases. Those students get an in-person hearing 3-5 days after receiving an expulsion notice.

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Permanent exclusion from school is only possible if a student is 16 or older when they commit one of a list of specified offenses and are criminally convicted – and then only if the local superintendent and school board get state approval.

Superintendent Tom Henderson said no Centerville student has been permanently excluded in his 10 years leading the district, and he said he’s been lucky to avoid some of the most tense discipline cases.

“I’ve had situations where I’ve had to put students out for a period of time, but I’ve never really been in a situation in this district where I’ve been really, really worried when they came back,” he said.

Working with students

Henderson said he relies on principals, counselors, school resource officers — and for students involved in the justice system, sometimes probation officers — to help evaluate individual cases.

But when students who have had multiple suspensions or other significant issues are returning for a new school year, Henderson meets with them late in the summer.

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“Part of growing up is learning to make good choices and good decisions, and maybe they haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Henderson said. “I have them come in with their parent or parents and the building principal. … We talk briefly about the past, but it’s more about focusing on the future and what’s going to be important for them to be successful. I sort of frame it as, this is a second chance … and an opportunity to make those good decisions.”

Centerville is among multiple districts that have some type of alternative school option — Centerville has its School of Possibilities — for students who struggle in a traditional high school environment. Online school programs are another option for students who have had severe discipline problems to continue their education without daily interaction in the school building.

Parent frustrations

After Oakwood’s incident, some parents wanted the student in question expelled, but others suggested the schools are too quick to push struggling students away rather than trying to help them.

Stephen Payne said he had previously pulled his children out of Oakwood schools because he felt school leaders and police were more focused on a sparkling public image than working to help kids.

“We want to help these kids. We want them to have a bright future and self-esteem and skills,” he said. “We don’t want them coming out feeling like, I’m worthless, I’m going to commit suicide. Or I’m angry, I’m going to take it out on my fellow classmates.”

Kathi Kizirnis, a mother of one Oakwood student and one who switched to Dayton’s Stivers School for the Arts, also mentioned schools’ concerns about image and lawsuits as a barrier to helping kids. She pleaded for “practical emotional-health education” for students who have behavioral and mental health needs.

RELATED: Oakwood family disputes danger of school “threat”

“Brushing these problems under the rug in order to maintain public image is literally harming God knows how many kids, and destroying some,” Kizirnis said. “Are schools solely to blame? Of course not. But they’re responsible for the culture they create and maintain, and for truly, honestly prioritizing the needs of all students.”

Oakwood Superintendent Kyle Ramey wouldn’t address the specific alleged threat case from last week, other than to say, “We’re always trying to do what’s best for the student and for the community, and we always work with the family.”

Bellbrook schools Superintendent Doug Cozad also declined comment on this topic in the wake of Bellbrook graduate Connor Betts’ mass shooting Aug. 4.

Discipline approaches

Schools vary on whether they quickly remove students from school based on a zero-tolerance policy, or try to keep kids in school, using “restorative justice” and other programs to teach students to learn from infractions.

Erich Merkle, past president of the Ohio School Psychologists Association, said a “fairly wide body of literature” questions whether removing students from school does any good. Suspended or expelled students, especially those with less support at home, may simply be adrift and simmering.

“Yes, we’ve taken that student out of our school climate, but have we put anything in place to help the student?” Merkle asked. “The point of discipline in school — whether we’re talking about a hit-list threat, or fighting, down to someone threw a piece of gum at somebody — is to help students acquire new skills and hopefully shift behavior.”

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Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli agreed, saying school staff should watch for signs of mental distress and aggressive behaviors. She said multiple training approaches help, including “trauma-informed” school training that is now mandatory in DPS.

“You provide supports for both the students who find out they’re on the list, but also for that student who developed the list and their parents,” Lolli said.

Centerville’s Henderson and Troy’s Piper were clear that certain lines of school safety cannot be crossed and will continue to cause expulsions. But they also use a mix of in-school and out-of-school suspensions depending on the case.

Said Piper, “I don’t think there should be a cookie-cutter response. … I like policies that allow us to think.”

Added Henderson, “We always say we believe in zero tolerance (for certain behaviors) but not in mandatory consequences,” so that age, intent and other factors can be weighed.

While shootings naturally create fear, Merkle emphasized that schools are comparatively very safe places. The Dayton area, with over 100,000 students in class every day, has not had an attacker kill students at school in at least several decades.

Merkle said school staff need to build a positive school culture, encouraging students to talk about problems and building trust that when they do, something will actually be done about it.

“What parents and teachers can do, first and foremost, is reinforce the very positive sense of school community,” he said. “We want to have positive relationships between adults and students. Those are the foundation of safe and successful learning environment.”

Can a student be permanently banned from school?

Ohio law sets many limits on school discipline.

Out-of-school suspensions are limited to 10 days, and most expulsions are for a maximum of 80 days.

One-year expulsions are limited to those who bring a gun to school, or on the school’s discretion, for making a bomb threat to a school building, committing a criminal act at school that results in serious physical harm, or bringing a knife capable of causing serious injury.

But there is a way for a student to be “permanently excluded” from attending any Ohio public school. It’s only possible if a student is age 16 or older when he or she commits one of a list of specified offenses and are criminally convicted.

The specified offenses include murder/manslaughter, rape, felonious/aggravated assault, or gross sexual imposition, when committed on school property, against a victim who was a school employee.

Other offenses on the list include bringing a deadly weapon or facsimile to school, violating concealed-carry weapons law on school property, drug trafficking or significant drug possession on school property, or complicity in any of those offenses.

After a qualifying criminal conviction (or juvenile adjudication of “delinquency” on one of those charges), the local superintendent would still have to determine the student’s continued attendance may endanger students or staff, and get the school board’s approval to seek permanent exclusion. The matter is then sent to the state superintendent for a final decision.

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