Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of two stories about how threats are handled in the Brookings School Distirct and Brookings County.
BROOKINGS – Threats will be taken seriously – that’s the message that school officials and legal authorities want to make clear to Brookings students and parents. And the repercussions – financial, legal and educational – could stretch a long time into the future.
The Brookings School District has dealt with two threat situations since school started Aug. 24.
“In both cases, there was never a true intent to harm,” said School Board President Mellissa Heermann in a school board meeting earlier this month. For more of her speech, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=be9AyOZjP4o online.
However, both cases were investigated by the district, reported to Brookings Police and then handed over to the Brookings County State’s Attorney’s office for prosecution. The suspects in each case may face repercussions ranging from probation all the way to prison.
“Nobody can just take a threat mildly because of the situation that our country is in,” said State’s Attorney Teree Nesvold.
Heermann and Brookings Superintendent Klint Willert agree.
“It is not a joke. We will take it seriously because we have to. We have to take it seriously because safety is our priority,” Heermann said in the meeting.
“We should be and need to be continually vigilant about our response to these circumstances,” Willert added. “There’s a very fine line between what is a threat and what becomes something that is acted upon. That’s a very fine line that, frankly, I’m not interested in crossing.”
They are urging parents to talk to their kids and impress on them the seriousness of making a threat, even if it’s an off-hand comment, and how critical the consequences might be for a long time down the road.
A threat, no matter how benign, sets off a chain of motion, Willert said.
The threat is assessed – whether verbal, written, social media or otherwise – and put in context as to a possible timeline associated with the threat. Officials consider the need for evacuation, sheltered response, whether it’s before or after school is in session, and whether they should delay or cancel school.
Closing school is an extreme measure, which they have taken this year to ensure safety, but it has consequences.
“Not only do you lose the opportunity for the education of students, but … parents have shared with me comments about how it’s impacted the well-being of their child, wondering, doubting, questioning whether or not it’s safe to go back to school, and nobody should feel that way ever … That’s why we take it as seriously as we do in terms of our response,” Willert said.
Those initial assessments will most likely include contacting law enforcement, he said. The school resource officer is notified because threats can have criminal implications. The Brookings County State’s Attorney could decide to press charges.
“We’ve had situations where we contacted Child Protective Services just because, again, if there’s something more that’s going on within the home,” Willert said. “It certainly would be well within the perusal of the school district to engage other agencies beyond the police department to support our response, comprehensively, to the need of the child.”
Administration and law enforcement must also consider notifying staff, parents and the community; determine who made the threat and take appropriate action.
Follow-up includes responses from the legal system and the school district. The legal response can range from charges of disruption of school, which is a misdemeanor, all the way up to terroristic threats, which is a felony.
The school district’s response is grounded in its policy which recommends expulsion, Willert said, adding it’s a “rigorous process.”
“When a child is recommended for expulsion, … we initiate a formalized expulsion hearing,” Willert said.
This is different from any court proceedings the state’s attorney might initiate.
In the interim, the student could also face out-of-school suspension, losing academic time there as well as during the expulsion.
The school board employs a hearing officer and a court reporter, like in a regular court, Willert said.
“The hearing officer swears in the individuals that are testifying and it feels and looks much like a court proceeding when you go through the expulsion hearing,” he said.
“The hearing officer acts as the school board’s attorney. The school district attorney serves as the representative for the school district administration. The parents may or may not have their own attorney,” Willert said.
The family would pay for their own attorney, he said, adding the district incurs the expense for the other aspects of the hearing. The school district goes through the expense and time-consuming investigations for a reason.
“We don’t want anybody to think that they can get by with creating an intimidating or threatening environment for our students and our staff,” Willert said.
The hearing, along with any statements made, takes place in executive session “because we are dealing with minors,” Willert said.
The school board listens to the testimony and makes a determination as to whether the board members agree with the administration’s recommendation or want to alter it.
“Then they hand down their ruling and that becomes the decision by which action follows,” Willert said.
“When we expel a student, that expulsion is for 12 months,” Willert said.
“It means that child can’t go to any school in South Dakota, either public or parochial, once they’ve been expelled.
“It’s important that parents and students know that the reach of the expulsion does follow them, so if they think that they’re going to enroll in a neighboring school district, they simply can’t,” Willert said.
Other school districts would be aware that the child has been expelled from Brookings District because they have to ask, as part of the educational records, what are the conditions under which this child is opting to enroll in the new district.
“State law is pretty explicit about that,” Willert said.
He also warned expulsion can have “a pretty big impact educationally.”
If a child is expelled in the middle of the first semester and can’t come back to school until midway through the first semester of the next school year, “you could effectively lose as much as two academic years of education,” Willert said.
If a student has a special educational need, such as an Individual Education Plan, the district is obligated by federal law to continue to provide educational services.
“Students that don’t have an IEP, we have no obligation to that child once they’ve been expelled,” Willert said.
That means the continuation of the expelled child’s education would fall on the parents, including whatever expense that goes with it, he said.
There could be long-range consequences for the student, even after the expulsion has been lifted.
“Directly, would there be something that states ‘expulsion’ in bold letters on a transcript? No. But are there indicators embedded in the transcript with grades, attendance, and the like? Yes. Those things would be there and could have impacts on college entrance,” Willert said.
That’s because college admissions personnel know the red flags to look for, such as discipline, disciplinary infractions, and gaps in academics.
If a child is missing large chunks of school time, they will probably end up with failures on their report card because of missing some credit opportunities, and that can have a “very, very significant impact on their transcript when it comes to reporting out GPA’s and the like to university systems for college entrance and also for scholarships,” Willert said.
“Our university systems are becoming so competitive in terms of the students that they’re willing to accept. They’re being held to a higher standard, too, in terms of safety on their campuses (and) wanting students to demonstrate an ability to complete a degree, so they’re becoming pretty judicious about who they’re allowing in,” Willert said.
Of course, getting the post-secondary education you want can impact the job you can qualify for later and the type of life you want to have.
Safety first, always
Willert wanted people to remember some things.
“First of all, we take the safety of security of our schools so seriously,” he said, vowing to continue to do that going forward.
“No. 2, I want to implore people to remember that if they see something, to say something,” he said.
Sometimes people, particularly young adults don’t take the things they hear or see seriously, dismissing it as a joke, or dismissing the person making the threat.
“No, we have to take everything very seriously,” Willert said.
That’s not just for students, but adults, as well.
“I would hope that parents, guardians would spend some time talking with children and say, ‘You know, the school’s pretty serious about this stuff and if you want to avoid getting put into a really difficult position legally, just don’t go there with a threatening statement.’ We just want parents and guardians to just really emphasize that point with their children,” Willert said.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]