Anyone who has been a teenager or spent even a little time with one knows they’re prone to say and do foolish things.
The challenge for rational adults is to decipher whether what teenagers say and do are real threats to themselves or others. That’s never been an easy thing to do and is even more difficult and complicated in the era of school shootings, including the one in which a Santa Fe High School student on May 18 opened fire, killing 10 people and wounded 13 more.
On Sept. 5, Santa Fe school officials learned about a threatening text message sent from one student to another that contained a list of names of people that one of the students wanted to “kill.”
The school district and the community still grieve. Everyone is on edge.
School districts immediately and appropriately informed parents and law enforcement officials.
But the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office said the students’ actions didn’t merit criminal charges.
“The safety of students in our community is of utmost importance, and our office works daily with the school district in Galveston County to investigate any potential threat,” Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady said. “When the evidence shows that a potential threat actually constitutes a terroristic threat under the law, then we file criminal charges against those involved.”
Although it wasn’t a popular response, it was a rational, measured and appropriate response.
It might have been easier, more politically expedient, to make a show of charging the students, whether their actions rose to the level of a crime or not, and then let the juvenile courts quietly sort it out later.
School districts and law enforcement are compelled to investigate each and every threat. In this day and age, no one should ignore a threat, no matter how apparently trivial. And teenagers should learn that foolishness has consequences.
The district said it had disciplined the teenagers, who, let’s hope, are under the watchful eyes of parents and authorities.
But law enforcement is tasked with the difficult part — how to separate the melodramatic and attention-seeking — no matter how offensive their comments — from the people who are true threats and have the ways and means to harm others.
School administrators and law enforcement officials are in unenviable positions. With the Santa Fe shooting and all others before it, school officials must anticipate any potential threat to safety of students, teachers and staff.
As school districts across the county strengthen security measures after Santa Fe, they and law enforcement also should adopt policies about threat assessments to prevent violence.
Such assessments should identify student threats to commit a violent act, determine the seriousness of the threat and develop intervention plans that protect potential victims and address the underlying problem or conflict, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
“Threats may be communicated to the intended victim or related to a third party,” according to the association. “A threat to harm others can be transient, i.e., expression of anger or frustration that can be quickly or easily resolved) or substantive, i.e., serious intent to harm others that involves a detailed plan and means.”
The Santa Fe students who texted the “kill” list did a very stupid thing that shouldn’t go unpunished.
But what school districts and law enforcement officials shouldn’t do is overreact to the point that we lock up every student who says or does a foolish thing. After all, a lot of teenagers would be incarcerated.
Even when emotions are high the voice of reason should prevail.
• Laura Elder