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‘See Something, Say Something’ can be thorny when it comes to schools

A see something say something page

This story appeared first in Ann Doss Helms' weekly newsletter, which comes out each Monday. Sign up here to get it to your inbox first.

Go to the webpage for Mooresville Graded Schools and you’ll see a prominent button labeled “See Something / Say Something.” It’s become a motto for schools across the country, as adults encourage students to report anything that might head off violence, bullying, sexual harassment or self-harm.

That’s why Bruce Johnson was dismayed when he learned that his 14-year-old son was facing suspension for trying to report a sexually inappropriate Snapchat message to a teacher at Mooresville Middle School.

“They promote ‘see something, say something.’ But in this instance my son saw something and they did indeed do something, but the something they did wasn’t in response to what he shared. They treated him as the assailant,” Johnson said.

The photo was, to be blunt, a penis. Johnson says a group of male students had been circulating risqué material – “it was laced with immaturity” – and he and his wife had instructed their son “to block them and ignore them.” But when the son received the penis photo in late October, he went straight to a teacher.

It was a female teacher. And she apparently thought the young man was being inappropriate with her. Administrators at the school called the parents, then followed up with an email saying the son would serve a two-day in-school suspension for having inappropriate material and violating the district’s policy against disruptive behavior.

Johnson says he wouldn’t be surprised if his son did a poor job of explaining why he was displaying such a photo. The young man has learning and cognitive disabilities that can lead to poor communication skills – something Johnson says school staff should be aware of because it’s part of his son’s individualized education plan.

“On one hand they’ve acknowledged he has communication deficits, but on the other hand they’re going to penalize him because he didn’t communicate appropriately,” Johnson said.

Mooresville district spokeswoman Tanae McLean said district officials would not discuss the matter. “The elements that made this situation unique are not things we can discuss under privacy laws,” McLean wrote. “Without being able to discuss this situation fully, any comments would be incomplete and cause the district's part of the story to not be presented in the correct context.”

After several rounds of back-and-forth with school and district administrators, the Johnsons prevailed in making sure their son faced no penalties and nothing would go into his school records. Bruce Johnson, a college dean who has a doctorate in education, followed up with an email to me and a letter published in the Iredell Free News because he says he worries that similar incidents could happen to students whose parents wouldn’t have the knowledge and confidence to fight for them.

“If it happened here, it could happen anywhere,” Johnson said.

Incident in Texas

“This American Life” recently featured a story first reported by The Dallas Morning News about a 13-year-old girl who was suspended and assigned to an alternative school based on her reaction to hearing one classmate tell another not to come to school the next day. According to the article, the girl wasn’t sure what to make of the remark, and she texted friends asking whether it might be a threat of violence.

The girl went immediately to consult with her mom after school. But by that time, school officials had gotten wind of the text messages. Police determined that the student who made the comment didn’t have access to a gun, and the girl, who had a clean disciplinary record, was punished for making a false accusation about school safety.

And there’s an even stranger twist: The boy who told a classmate to stay home was also suspended and assigned to an alternative school because of inconsistent statements about what he’d said that day. According to the article, he initially said he had made the comment as a joke to scare his friends, but later denied telling anyone to stay home.

These incidents, separated by more than 1,000 miles, have a couple of things in common. In both cases, the students had access to anonymous reporting systems, which they didn’t use. Each adolescent did a less-than-perfect job of reacting to situations they found confusing and stressful. Is anyone surprised by that?

Both students had parents willing to push back against school officials who appear, at least from this distance, to have overreacted. It’s worth thinking about the difficulty educators face in a world where a cryptic comment could be the tipoff to a mass shooting and an explicit photograph could be a form of sexual harassment — or where either one could be a sign of teenage foolishness.

Racial overtones?

There’s one more common factor: The Mooresville boy and the Dallas girl are both Black. Studies have shown that Black students are consistently more likely than white ones to be subjected to school disciplinary measures, especially in matters that leave room for personal judgment.

As a Black male middle school student with disabilities, Johnson’s son checks all the boxes for the types of students who are disproportionately suspended in North Carolina.

Johnson says he’s not sure whether racial bias played a role in the school’s reaction to his son’s clumsy report, but he suspects it did. And he said it raises concerns about other students who are too easily seen as troublemakers. “There’s others who could have been subjected to that exact same thing and now their son is being typecast for something that they did absolutely no wrong in,” he said.

Many North Carolina districts, including Mooresville, participate in the “Say Something” anonymous reporting system, which was created to make sure students can report anything they find troubling without facing consequences from schools or peers. The program was created by Sandy Hook Promise, a group that emerged after the mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

To state the obvious, it’s clear that schools across the country are serious about ensuring that reports are fielded and kids who may be in trouble — or cause it for others — get help. I’d wager that for every case that goes sideways, there are countless instances of educators reacting with sensitivity and restraint when kids come to them. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, officials say that most of the guns intercepted at schools over the years have been found because a student talked to a teacher, administrator or school resource officer.

A Sandy Hook Promise spokeswoman said the group doesn’t have any information about students being punished for trying to report things through other channels. But she did steer me to the group’s safety principles, which include this caution:

Poorly implemented school threat assessment – especially when conflated with racial profiling, risk assessment, and exclusionary disciplinary practices such as zero-tolerance policies – can lead to disastrous outcomes for students. This is especially true for students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities, undocumented students, and students who exist at the intersection of those identities. These students experience inequitable rates of school discipline, with higher and disproportionate rates of restraint, suspension, expulsion, and incarceration. However, when properly implemented and used as part of a holistic approach to supporting safe schools, threat assessment can be an alternative to zero-tolerance policies, as it requires a flexible and individualized response when a threat occurs. A proper assessment should connect students with resources and get them the help they need to avoid a potential crisis, not get them into trouble.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.