By Sarah Goodrum
Research on violence prevention in schools focuses on building positive climates and sharing information. A positive climate increases students’ willingness to report concerns to school staff. There is less research examining the climate among school staff; yet, this climate also shapes whether teachers report concerns about students and how administrators respond to concerns about those students. This qualitative case study provided lessons learned about information sharing among school staff following a tragic high school shooting.
On December 13, 2013, “KP,” an 18-year-old senior, shot and killed a classmate and then himself at Arapahoe High School (AHS) in Colorado. Law enforcement records, deposition testimony, and school records indicate that KP had displayed inappropriate and concerning behavior at AHS (and in elementary school) over the years. In September 2013, three months before the shooting, he threatened to kill the speech and debate coach, and underwent a threat assessment with the assistant principal and school psychologist. The assessment team labeled him a low risk.
The assessment appears to have missed information about the student’s behavior and beliefs. Overall, the findings identified two major obstacles to communicating information about this student among school staff, including (1) confusion about information sharing under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (known as FERPA, it protects the privacy of student education records) and (2) an absence of leadership to encourage information sharing and question decision-making. The findings suggest that adaptive leadership may help school officials use information to build a culture of safety and prevent violence.
Information sharing proves critical to violence prevention, but students fear being labeled a snitch and staff fear violating FERPA. In this case, KP had exhibited concerning behavior in many instances prior to the shooting, but due to inconsistencies in recordkeeping, misinformation about FERPA, and concerns about negatively labeling students, no one-including the assistant principal and school psychologist who conducted the threat assessment-knew about all of those problems.”
[I wish] we had more information given to us about students . . . like an information vortex . . . where everything [is] brought together and where law enforcement [is] involved, the therapist outside of the school [is] involved. . . . [T]he information needs to be shared with everybody. Everybody needs to be brought in, and it’s frustrating for me,” said school resource officer James Englert in a deposition. “[T]he school is concerned about a certain kid, but they are holding back [information] because of fears of whatever.”
Those fears emerged from misunderstandings of FERPA, which grants the right to privacy for students’ education records. Penalties can be imposed if a FERPA violation is discovered. The guidelines, however, also offer a safety exception. According to the act: “[I]f the school district or school determines that there is an articulable and significant threat to the health or safety of the student or other individuals and that a party needs personally identifiable information from education records to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals, it may disclose that information . . . without consent.”
School officials at AHS had difficulty knowing when and how the exception applied. Language teacher Victoria Lombardi explained in her deposition, “[B]efore the shooting, if I had an issue with a student, I couldn’t go to another teacher and say, ‘Hey, do you see the same behavior, because this is concerning me.’
I think [that’s a problem] because it takes all of us to keep the school safe . . . and information is important and communication is important . . . I think there should be a way that we know [about] every student in trouble in that school.”
At AHS, teachers could not learn about a student’s suspension, threat assessment, or safety plan. As a result, several teachers and one coach struggled to understand KP’s inappropriate behavior, and administrators did not recognize the escalation in his boundary testing.
“I was working in isolation in the fall of 2013 when all of this was happening [with KP],” said speech and debate coach Tracy Murphy during a deposition. “And it appears that [the Spanish teacher] was having problems with KP and that [his junior year math teacher] had had some previous problems, and [his senior year math teacher] had some issues. None of us knew this; none of the faculty that had direct interaction with the student was aware . . . I wasn’t aware of [all of these] problems.”
Conflicts can arise between protecting a student’s right to privacy and supporting a student in crisis. At AHS, confusion about information sharing under FERPA continued, even after the shooting. More than 18 months later, the school psychologist Esther Song acknowledged, “I don’t know what information can be relayed about each student to general staff and teachers, because I think that there has to be some protection of confidentiality to protect that student’s rights.”
FERPA guidelines, however, allow schools to share records with school officials without a student or parent’s permission when the school official shares a “legitimate educational interest” and when there are “health and safety emergencies” for the student or others. Some argue that the definition of a health and safety “emergency” remains unclear.
To explain the exception, the U.S. Department of Education has said: “This is a flexible standard under which the Department defers to school administrators so that they may bring appropriate resources to bear on the situation.”
The deference, however, appears to increase fears, not alleviate them. The fact that these misunderstandings persist indicates that FERPA represents an adaptive challenge, and school officials should not wait for the federal government or case law to clarify the confusion about FERPA.
Sadly, the lessons learned about information sharing from this case are not new lessons; they were learned following the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, which raises the important question: Why have we not yet fixed this problem?
The answer is that it is complicated. As Rebecca Costa has argued in The Watchman’s Rattle, complex problems require solutions with multiple strategies implemented in tandem. With violence prevention in schools, we are overcoming widespread confusion about FERPA, fears about violating FERPA, and a reluctance to share information. Until now, many districts have approached the problem with technical solutions (e.g., increasing guidelines, staff, forms, and trainings). These solutions, however, do not address the underlying system that discourages the sharing of information about students of concern. It is time to address the system. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky ask, “What things, if they happened more frequently, or less frequently, would help make progress on the adaptive challenge I am working on?” Based on the findings from this and other school shootings, pro-actively seeking out information from and sharing information with relevant staff about a student presenting a safety concern would help school officials both support students and prevent violence.
Editor’s Note: The study was funded by The Denver Foundation; the report reflects the opinions of the author and not the official position of the University of Northern Colorado or The Denver Foundation. Also, because the deposition transcripts in the case were made public, the witnesses’ names and titles are used here.
Here’s what secondary school principals can do to help build a culture of safety at their schools:
- Implement a system for staff to consistently document student behavior concerns, disciplinary actions, academic problems, threat assessment results, and support plans and to designate an information coordinator for students of concern.
- Understand and communicate the meaning of FERPA’s safety exception to all staff to ensure the reporting and sharing of information about students of concern.
- Recognize and address the organizational, cultural, and social obstacles to sharing information about students of concern within the school.
Sarah Goodrum, PhD, is an associate professor and department chair for the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, CO. Tweet her through the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice @UNCOcriminaljus).