Wake County students will now face long-term suspensions and a bill from the school system if their threats lead to school evacuations.
The Wake County school board gave final approval Tuesday to changes in the Code of Student Conduct that stiffen the consequences for making threats that lead to school evacuations. The policy change comes after 22 threats were made against Wake County high schools and middle schools in October and November, resulting in four evacuations.
Students could now be required to make restitution for the disruption and cost of evacuations, either monetarily or through community service. Students could also receive long-term suspensions of more than 10 days from school.
“We’re trying to help our parents and our students understand – and particularly our students – that this is not fun and games,” school board Chairman Tom Benton said in an interview after the initial vote Jan. 5. “These kinds of threats have consequences for schools and at times can be expensive to the school system.”
But the policy change has drawn criticism from legal groups that work with students.
Brenda Berlin, supervising attorney for the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke University Law School, has noted that students who make threats against schools already face criminal charges that could lead to restitution.
“It is very troubling when the school system is trying to impose its own system of investigation and punishment when one exists in the criminal justice system,” Berlin said in an interview earlier this month. “And there are safeguards in place in the criminal justice system to protect the innocent which don’t exist in the school setting.”
The policy change comes during a state of heightened fears after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, Calif. On Dec. 15, all of the schools in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school system, were closed because of a terrorist threat.
Locally, Raleigh Police Department records show that 14 bomb threats were made against schools between March and December. Six were made against Athens Drive High School.
Wake County’s experience is consistent with what school systems are seeing nationally, according to Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm based in Cleveland, Ohio. There was a 158 percent increase in school threats across the country from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31, 2014, compared to the same period the year before, according to a study by Trump’s group.
Wake’s policy doesn’t list a specific restitution amount. Instead, it says the superintendent will pass on to the student and his or her parents any fee imposed by emergency responders.
If no fine is imposed by an outside agency, the superintendent would calculate a standard restitution fee “to reasonably compensate for the cost and disruption of a campus evacuation.”
The policy says students who couldn’t afford to pay the fee could get a waiver and perform an alternative service.
Berlin has said the policy is too vague. For instance, Berlin said there’s no details about how a family could prove they couldn’t pay or what would happen if they refused to pay.