On Feb. 26, the Tooele County School District held a public meeting to discuss student safety in our 26 local schools. The impression given to those in attendance was that the district and Tooele law enforcement are reasonably comfortable with their preparations, plans, policies, procedures and protocols to prevent a Parkland-type killing spree in any of our schools. But it was admitted that improvement was still needed.
A personal story will illustrate why that improvement is badly needed. Some weeks ago, my 7-year-old, first-grade grandson was threatened by a classmate. The classmate said he would bring a knife to school, tie my grandson to a basketball pole, and cut off his head.
We notified the sheriff’s office, filed a complaint and were told the incident would be looked into. But since no crime had actually been committed, not much could be done. In Utah it’s apparently legal for a minor child to threaten to kill someone.
The next day I accompanied my daughter to her meeting with the school principal. We were told the school and the district were aware of the behavioral problems of the one child and that discussions were underway to decide what to do. We were incredulous. We asked why the student was still allowed in the school population. The answer was equally unbelievable: There are several layers of authority, including teachers, administrators, psychologists, committees, parents and possibly law enforcement, that need to be consulted before a decision is made to remove a threatening child from school. But in the meantime that child is allowed to remain in class and a possible threat to his/her classmates. The process may take several weeks, and much of the discussion is focused on protecting the civil rights of the offending student, and ignoring the right to safety of the other children.
We were assured the new allegations of violence by the child would be looked into and we would be contacted if there were new developments. We were not at all comforted.
A few days later, by appointment, I met with Superintendent Scott Rogers. I related the same story about my grandson to him and pointedly asked why the belligerent student was still allowed in class. His answer was nearly identical to the principal’s, given a few days earlier, but with a heightened sense of frustration.
Apparently, Utah law makes it nearly impossible for school administrators and law enforcement to quickly identify, confirm and then remove a student from school who poses a clear and present danger to a school’s safety. In spite of years of continuous and forceful lobbying of the Utah Legislature by concerned administrators like Scott Rogers, the Legislature refuses to make meaningful changes to the law, which would allow schools and police greater legal authority to intercede in such matters, and to prevent a Utah catastrophe. For the Legislature to refuse to make these badly needed changes of law places our children at far greater risk of harm than they should be.
It’s time for change.
Every school killing spawns the same requisite investigation, and each investigation tells the same story, that beforehand the killer demonstrated a clear and unmistakable pattern of behavior that should have alerted authorities to the impending crisis. But the signs were tragically either ignored or marginalized, oftentimes because of an unwillingness to push back against an unwieldy and uncooperative system. And children died because of it.
The story of the threat of violent death to my grandson is a perfect example of the dangerous and archaic laws that place restraints upon Utah school administrators and law enforcement agencies, preventing them from being able to immediately recognize and legally define a credible threat to school safety and then swiftly to neutralize it. Making a threat of violence, even by a child, should be against the law and, notwithstanding the child’s civil rights, require a rapid investigative response by the police. If the threat proves credible, the child should immediately be removed from the classroom.
In the aviation industry there is a saying: Safety comes only after tragedy. Nationally, we’ve seen enough death in schools to know the threats are real, and there can be no imaginable excuse for us to stand idly by with hands in pockets waiting for a horrible tragedy to occur in Utah before we decide something needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. Again? There should never be a first time!
None of us want to hear that the nation’s thoughts and prayers are with us while we bury our murdered kids. Not ever.
How sad it would be if we did. How terribly foolish of us to have not prevented it when we could.
Richard Ewing Davis is a resident of Stansbury Park.