Hundreds of special ed students ID’d as potential threats
ALBUQUERQUE – Jamari Nelson likes action figures and video games – the “usual kid stuff,” as the 7-year-old put it. One of his favorite activities is making slime out of glue, laundry detergent, and other household chemicals. The kitchen cabinet is stocked with plastic baggies of his multicolored goop.
“I sort of really recommend this one for stress and stuff,” he said, showing off a mustard-yellow slime the consistency of Silly Putty. He likes squeezing it, feeling it ooze between his fingers, stretching it until it becomes so thin that it melts. He’s also fascinated by the science itself: By varying the ingredients, by warming the slime with his hands or cooling it in the fridge, he can create endless, surprising variety.
“That’s the cool thing about science,” Jamari said. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
Jamari’s science experiments only happen at home these days. In January, his mother pulled him out of Albuquerque Public Schools after the staff at Collet Park Elementary conducted a “threat assessment” on her first-grader, who has autism. Introduced around the country two decades ago, threat assessments originally were intended to identify children who might commit mass shootings.
“He’s not a threat,” said Agatha Cooper, his mom. “He is a student who is struggling.”
Jamari’s predicament illustrates a systemic problem in Albuquerque and serves as a warning to schools nationwide. In well-meaning attempts to prevent gun violence and keep students safe, districts around the country have implemented threat assessment procedures that can stigmatize whole groups of students, most notably kids with disabilities. That’s precisely what’s occurring in Albuquerque, where these assessments have become commonplace — and where Jamari’s evaluation could remain on his school records for years to come.
Jamari Nelson, 7, with his dog, Shadow, and his mom, Agatha Cooper. Jamari enjoys taking Shadow, a two-year-old pug, on walks through his neighborhood. Don J. Usner .
APS spokesperson Monica Armenta said in an email that “while the presence of a threat assessment might be considered a stigma, APS’s priority is to provide safety for the student and the APS community. To the extent a threat assessment was conducted, APS believes that having that information available outweighs any possible stigma that may result.”
Jamari’s assessment followed a Jan. 22 classroom incident, when he was asked to stop playing a game on an iPad and get to work. The boy – about 4 feet tall and weighing 50 pounds – didn’t obey. After a teaching assistant took the tablet from his hands, he grabbed some pencils and tried to jab her. Another adult intervened and tried to physically restrain Jamari. He bit her, and then hit a teacher on the head with a whiteboard, drawing blood.
“Everybody back up and nobody gets hurt,” Jamari said, according to a staff member who testified about the incident at a public hearing.
The next day, he was deemed a “high-level threat” to the school.
During the 2018-19 school year, APS carried out 834 threat assessments, according to district data. It was the third consecutive year in which a disproportionate number of the assessments were conducted on special education students and African-American children.
Last school year, kids in special education, who made up just 18 percent of the total student population, were the subject of 469, or 56 percent, of all threat assessments in Albuquerque. Meanwhile, 80 assessments, or 9.6 percent, were conducted on African-American children, who constituted only 2.6 percent of the student body.
Jamari belongs to both groups.
Armenta said in an email that the district never "refers students for threat assessments based on ethnicity, ability or any other distinguishing trait.”
But experts expressed concerns about the disproportionate representation of African-American children and special education students in Albuquerque’s threat assessment data.
“I don’t think it's terribly hard to say there is a disparity here,” said Kristen Harper, director for policy development at Child Trends, a research institute in Bethesda, Md., referring to the overrepresentation of black students. She also pointed out that APS’s threat assessment forms list certain disabilities as reasons to consider students threatening: “The bias is present. It’s written. It’s stated. It’s plain.”
Across the state, public information about which students are evaluated as threats is hard to come by. Searchlight requested data from the 5 largest districts in New Mexico. Here’s what we got back:
Albuquerque: provided detailed data segmented by grade, race/ethnicity, and special education status for the past 3 school years.
Las Cruces: does not keep track, a spokesperson told Searchlight.
Rio Rancho: did not respond to requests for information.
Santa Fe: could not provide data, Superintendent Veronica Garcia told Searchlight.
Gadsden: did not respond to requests for information.
Dearth of data
In Albuquerque, threat assessments reflect national patterns of inequity that affect black students and students with disabilities. Federal data show these children are far more likely to be suspended, expelled, or arrested at school than their peers.
“It’s dangerous for us to routinely label our children as threats, especially students with disabilities who need more attention and compassion from us, not less,” said Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia-based legal clinic that handles education cases, among others.
The director of APS’s threat assessment program said the large representation of special education students makes sense. “A lot of special education kids, they have a disability, and they say things that, you know, are scary to people,” said Larry Fortess. “They just don’t know how to communicate in an appropriate way.”
Jamari Nelson, 7, at home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Don J. Usner
Threat assessment protocols were imported into schools in the late 1990s after a series of school shootings terrified parents and students around the country. The protocols were derived from a U.S. Secret Service strategy to prevent political assassinations.
Massacres like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado -- where 12 students and a teacher were murdered in 1999 – prompted schools in many states to adopt a variety of measures to prevent such tragedies from happening in their communities. In a 1999 FBI report promoting threat assessments, then-Attorney General Janet Reno cautioned that the protocol should be used judiciously “because the risk of unfairly labeling and stigmatizing children is great.” In the early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Education and the Secret Service endorsed threat assessments as an effective way to reduce attacks on schools.
About 42 percent of public schools in the U.S. use some form of the evaluation, according to the latest federal data, from the 2015-16 school year. There's a push in Congress to expand the use of threat assessments throughout the country.
At the same time, there's a dearth of data showing which students are being identified as threats and for what behaviors. Moreover, whether threat assessments actually reduce gun violence in schools has never been conclusively demonstrated.
New Mexico’s Public Education Department requires every school to have a threat assessment team. In Albuquerque — the state's largest district, with 82,000 students — the process has been in place for about two decades. Experts commend the district for the detailed data it compiles.
During the 2016-17 school year, 702 assessments were made in Albuquerque, followed by 909 assessments in 2017-18. Of the 834 threat assessments filed during the 2018-19 school year, 165 – including Jamari’s – were deemed “high level.” (Some students may have been assessed multiple times.)
In contrast to other school safety methods, like zero-tolerance discipline policies, threat assessments are supposed to support students, not punish them, experts said.
In the best-case scenario, trained professionals identify students who they believe pose a threat to their schools. An assessment team determines what issues are causing the students’ aggressive tendencies. The team then develops a plan – tutoring, counseling, mentoring, or other interventions – to address the root causes. When effectively applied, some academic research shows, threat assessments can reduce bullying and suspensions, while contributing to a general sense of safety and wellbeing among students.
But at their worst, these assessments can reach too far and go awry, catching up children like Jamari -- who was physically restrained multiple times before he was deemed a threat to school safety. A Searchlight investigation published last week found that APS teachers and staff routinely restrain students, even though this practice can traumatize kids and educators. Moreover, Searchlight found that Albuquerque schools frequently fail to tell parents when their children are physically restrained – a violation of state law.
Jamari’s parents said school officials never questioned them while conducting the threat assessment. For many months, they knew little about the process. “It’s just this secret file about your child,” said Gail Stewart, an Albuquerque lawyer who represents Jamari’s parents.
While parents can request to see the complete assessment form, APS usually does not share the full evaluation, said Fortess.
“We don’t want a parent getting angry because a teacher made a remark about their child,” he said. “We’re careful not to put any staff at risk. Some parents don’t handle it well. They’re not happy we’re doing this.”
District Superintendent Raquel Reedy, who last week announced her retirement in the midst of a controversy over her salary, declined to comment for this story, through Armenta. Armenta denied Searchlight’s request to interview any staff involved in the Jan. 22 classroom incident with Jamari, citing federal privacy law.
To reconstruct the Jan. 22 event and the subsequent assessment process, Searchlight reviewed hundreds of pages of transcripts from a public hearing held last summer.
Jamari Nelson, 7, displays part of his collection of Legos in his bedroom at home Albuquerque, New Mexico. Don J. Usner
Agatha Cooper first noticed her son’s abnormal behavior when he was three years old. He had trouble establishing friendships at day care. He struggled when events didn’t follow a predictable routine, and it was difficult for him to transition from one task to the next. Sometimes, he would lash out when people got too physically close to him.
He was frequently restrained in school, beginning in kindergarten. Cooper said that on one occasion she was called to his class, where she saw Jamari held down in the back of the room, hysterical. It was one of at least five times when he was restrained during kindergarten and first grade, according to school records provided by Stewart, Cooper's attorney.
The summer after kindergarten, Cooper took Jamari to a private psychologist, who diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder. Cooper sent the information to Jamari’s principal, hoping the school would develop a strategy – as required by federal law -- to provide her son with an education tailored to his autism.
But months later, in January 2019, a document integral to the strategy – the “behavioral intervention plan” – had not been created, according to Cooper and Stewart. That document, which is part of federal special education law, lays out specific steps that adults are supposed to follow when a child engages in specific problematic behaviors.
Over the years, Jamari’s mom had developed her own strategies for helping him to transition from task to task. When she wants to take Jamari to the grocery store, she tells him about the plan an hour ahead of time, and then sets an alarm to go off a few minutes before their departure: “Sometimes, even with all those reminders, it takes him 10 minutes to get out of the house,” she said.
On Jan. 22, the teachers, educational assistants and other adults in Jamari’s classroom did not have a fully developed strategy.
The teaching assistant who told Jamari to turn off his game had begun working in the classroom just two weeks prior. After she took the tablet out of his hands, he lashed out. A teacher grabbed Jamari’s arms from behind, pulling them across his chest. At another point, Jamari was on the ground, flailing; as the school counselor got close to him, she was kicked in the head. Jamari kept yelling that he just wanted to be alone, according to a teacher’s testimony.
The next day, he wasn’t allowed to return to school, and the staff filled out the threat assessment paperwork. It included a checklist indicating that Jamari engaged in “frequent fighting" and “destruction of property.” He was “extremely manipulative,” “distrustful,” and displayed an “alternate identity ‘as a force to be reckoned with.’”
He did have a few things going for him -- “good grades” and “involved caregivers,” for example. His “family seeks help when needed,” the document stated, and “respects authority.”
The team concluded Jamari was a “high level threat.” He displayed “high violence potential,” but he was not an “imminent” threat to the school.
Jamari’s parents say they didn’t know about any of this. Called to the school a few days after the incident, they were given a one-page form that included a vague description of the event. It also said the school would henceforth follow Jamari’s behavioral intervention plan – which hadn’t been created.
It was almost by accident that Jamari's parents were able to peer behind the curtain of the threat assessment. Believing that APS was failing to address their son’s needs, they engaged a lawyer, Stewart, who filed a formal complaint against the district. Stewart received a cache of information — the details of the Jan. 22 altercation, and the entire threat assessment process that followed. The information was made public during a nine-day hearing in July and August overseen by a state-appointed lawyer.
Jamari Nelson, 7, with Shadow. Jamari is close to the two-year-old pug, the two sometimes even share a bed. Don J. Usner
“I was completely shocked,” Cooper said, adding that “people were interacting with him like a violent criminal, not like a student with autism.”
Reviewing the checklist last month at his barber supply store in Albuquerque, her husband Malcolm Cooper shook his head.
“‘May appear superficially charming?’” he said, reading aloud from the form. “He’s not superficial. He is charming!”
The form also ascribed “perceived injustices, humiliation, or disrespect” to Jamari, whose dad pointed out that the boy had been restrained multiple times by school staff.
“What do you mean it’s `perceived’?” Malcolm demanded. “They’re just trying to say that’s like, in his own mind? The injustices? I mean, being held down in front of the whole class -- that is humiliating.”
The hearing showed that the Jan. 22 incident was distressing for many of those involved. Agatha Cooper testified that her son felt terrible about having hurt a teacher, and he couldn’t sleep for days: “Mom, I saw blood all over her face,” he said, according to Cooper's testimony. “Am [I] like a killer kid or something? Am I a bad kid?”
The teacher who tried to restrain Jamari testified that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. She had nightmares. The incident made her re-think her desire to be a teacher.
Two decades after threat assessments were introduced, the question remains: Do they reduce the level of gun violence in schools? Studies are less than conclusive.
The most comprehensive analyses have been conducted over the past 18 years at the University of Virginia by education professor Dewey Cornell. He developed a threat assessment model that is used by school districts across the country. It’s distinct from Albuquerque’s procedure, using different evaluation forms and classification categories. But it shares the goal of preventing school violence.
According to Cornell’s research, threat assessments can have positive effects – less bullying, fewer suspensions, and an elevated feeling of safety. In schools that used Cornell’s model, a study showed, kids were more willing to seek help from adults if another student was bullying them or threatening violence.
While school shootings are horrific, they remain statistically rare. In the 2015-16 school year, 98.8 percent of youth homicides did not occur in a school setting, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
That makes it difficult to address whether threat assessments prevent shootings.
“Virginia has not had a K-12 homicide in 20 years, none,” Cornell said. “And so you can’t really do a study and say, `Oh, the schools that use our model have fewer shootings.’”
APS school police records from the 2017-18 year show that threat assessments are used in situations directly related to potential school shootings.
In one case, a 12-year-old “made threats to shoot up the school.” In another, a middle schooler threatened over social media to kill some of her peers. In both cases, school staff completed a threat assessment. Neither of the threatened incidents took place.
An APS administrator said it’s difficult to know, in any specific case, whether an intervention — threat assessment, counseling, or anything else — works.
“Were you successful because of the intervention, [or] were you successful because student X really didn’t mean it?” said Scott Elder, APS’s chief operations officer. “That’s kind of hard to quantify. But I think we’d rather all err on the side of trying to help somebody and trying to be preventative, because it’s getting too close to home.”
Jamari Nelson, 7, in his bedroom at home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Don J. Usner
Since pulling Jamari out of school in January, Cooper has homeschooled her son. “I’m just trying to focus on nursing Jamari’s love of learning back,” she said.
On a recent morning, he combined liquid soap, powdered ammonia, water, sodium carbonate, and citric acid in an Erlenmeyer flask. A blueberry-colored stream of bubbles shot out of the top. He asked his mom for an extra set of gloves so that a reporter could touch the bubbling mass.
Jamari enjoys the academics at home more than at his old school, he said. He can take breaks when he wants, and he gets to go through the material at his own pace. “I just get my school done really fast, because, like my mom said, I’m a fast learner.”
But he misses his classmates. He recalled how he and one of his friends would crawl under the playground equipment, pretending it was a fort.
“We’d pretend that we were saving the world and there were robots everywhere,” Jamari said. “Yeah, that’s what I really miss.”