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In New Orleans, Educators Walk The Fine Line Between Protecting and Policing

The New Orleans Criminal District Court, where students 17 and over have been prosecuted for allegedly making threats on their school.
Jess Clark
The New Orleans Criminal District Court, where students 17 and over have been prosecuted for allegedly making threats on their school.

Last fall, a student told a joke at International High School of New Orleans. It landed him in jail.

We’re not using his name to protect his privacy. According to police records, it was around lunchtime at the high school, which is in the CBD. A student overheard the 17-year-old say “I’m going to blow the school up.” That student told the principal, and the principal called the police.

The student who made the comment told police he was just joking around. He didn’t actually plan to bomb his school. But he left in handcuffs, charged with making false bomb threats at a school - a felony that can get you up to 20 years in prison. That landed him in the adult criminal justice system, because  until March, 17-year-olds will be tried as adults in Louisiana.

The mass murder of 17 people one year ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., has reignited concerns across the country about school safety, including in New Orleans. According to police records obtained by WWNO, in 2018 public schools in New Orleans called police 51 times to respond to alleged student threats. Police arrested students in at least 16 of those cases. But experts say the number could be higher, as arrests made in follow-up visits are not included in the public record requested by WWNO.

The New Orleans police department did not make a spokesperson available to discuss its arrest policy or practices. But experts say police rely on their own discretion when deciding whether or not to arrest, and records show police often take their lead from school administration in making those decisions.

Sean Wilson is the head of the International School of New Orleans. He says he can't comment on the particular case of the 17-year-old charged for making threats at his school, but insists the school has to take all threats seriously.

"We’re not in a position to know what’s in a student’s home or what’s in their possession upon leaving campus, so when a threat is made I believe that as an administration we have to take all threats at face value," he said.

Aaron Clark-Rizzio leads the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, the juvenile public defender's office for Orleans Parish. He argues for a more nuanced approach.

"Obviously it's really important to investigate all threats like this," he said. "But the question is, what should be done in terms of involving law enforcement? Is arrest and detention and so forth the right answer for all of these incidents?" 

Clark-Rizzio says his office has defended a number of cases where students were charged for making threats. 

"Some are tough judgement calls, others, to me, it feels like adults are concerned about sort of covering their tracks or making sure they're not eventually blamed if something happened, but not not sitting down and really thinking, 'what is best for children, and what is best for the school community?'" he said. 

Clark-Rizzio says there are some "pretty extreme negative impacts" for students who are arrested on charges related to threats. Students are most frequently charged with "terrorizing" - a felony that carries up to 15 years in prison for adults. Juvenile defendants under the age of 17 have a different set of consequences.

Clark-Rizzio says students arrested on these charges are almost always held on a high bond. The International High School of New Orleans student had a bond of $3,000. His family was able to post bail, but kids whose families can’t pay up can linger in detention for months - disconnected from their school, their family and friends. They’re more at riskof depression, anxiety, and falling behind or dropping out of school. Convictions and arrest records can follow them for the rest of their lives, making it harder to get a job, join the military or get into college.

"It's often very hard to reverse the sort of mechanisms of the criminal justice system once they are put in play," Clark-Rizzio said.

One New Orleans school trying to keep students safe without calling 911 is The NET Charter School. On a recent morning at The NET's Gentilly campus, school leader Elizabeth Ostberg used a metal detecting wand to check students as they enter the building. Two young women drop their bags onto the table for a search and hold out their arms. Ostberg encourages them to hold each other accountable for staying to the end of the day.

"You gonna make sure she stays for D period?" Ostberg asks the first student.

"What period are you gonna stay to?!" the other says, turning to her friend.

"You're staying," the first student says sternly. 

The NET caters to students who have struggled in a traditional school environment. Many have dropped out or been expelled in the past - sometimes for bringing weapons to school. But Ostberg says aside from this morning checkpoint, The NET tries to stay away from what she calls, “hardening.” The way to keep kids safe, she says, is knowing them.

"There's so much research that backs up that relationships create more safety than extra security guards or extra metal detectors," she explains.

Ostberg says when students have outbursts that could be considered threats, the first step is not to dial 911 - it’s for staff to ask themselves what they know about the student.

"Did they just get a bad grade and are in a really bad space, or did they just have a very serious falling out with another student?" Ostberg says.

If staff can figure out what’s really going on, usually they can address it with counseling, a call home, maybe even a yoga class. Those are things the police can’t necessarily do.

This isn’t to say The NET never calls the police. Ostberg says, sometimes, it is necessary. In fact, last year after the Parkland shooting, The NET called police to investigate an anonymous threat against the school made on Instagram. Ostberg says they made the decision to call the police because the school didn't know where it came from. Police discovered it was a prank that came from a student, and he was arrested. 

But Ostberg says by handling most situations in-house, the school avoids setting in motion the life-altering consequences of the criminal justice system. This approach takes a lot of work: building relationships with students so that they know which threats are real, and which threats are just students blowing off steam. Staff have to know students really well.

NET internship coordinator Charmaine Harris shares a few words about student Des Monique Farris at her graduation in December. NET staff share a word on stage about each student who graduates - one of the ways the school puts relationships at the center of its practices.
Credit Jess Clark / WWNO
NET internship coordinator Charmaine Harris shares a few words about student Des Monique Farris at her graduation in December. NET staff share a word on stage about each student who graduates - one of the ways the school puts relationships at the center of its practices.

At The NET’s graduation ceremony in December, math teacher Devin Floyd is up on stage, telling the crowd of family members about his student Tyrionne Hagan, or Ty. She’s next to him, wearing a black cap and gown, and a big smile.

"A lot of us have goals that may seem like it’s taking forever for us to reach," Floyd tells the crowd. "But just like Ty, you gotta keep pushing. You can’t give up. And I can honestly say that you staying the course has been inspirational for me to keep pushing through."

NET teachers and staff share a word on stage about each student who graduates. It’s another way the school puts relationships at the center of its practices. NET graduate Byron Jiles says it’s different from other schools he’s been to.

"Everything here is just like embracing," he explains.  "It felt like home in a sense. Every time you come in the building you get love from everybody."

University of Southern California professor Ron Avi Astor studies school safety. He says research shows good relationships not only allow teachers to discern when a threat is real - they actually prevent threats from developing, and they improve learning.

"We see classes that have very good relationships, strong relationships with their teachers, with teachers that are caring, and flexible, actually ask kids about what their lives are like - they do better in those academic subjects on the whole."

The NET high school is relatively small, and Ostberg says that makes it easier for staff to get to know each kid really well. She believes though, that there are ways to scale up these practices for bigger schools so that each student has at least one or two adults who really know them. That way, schools can rely more on relationships, and less on police.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.