By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008
On Wednesday morning, instead of heading to Rosa Parks Elementary School in Prince William County, James Falletta clambered downstairs to his basement bedroom. He plopped onto his blue New York Giants bedspread and stared at his pet mouse, Ratatouille, clawing inside a cage.
James, an honor-roll fifth-grader, was not sick. He was starting the 10th day of a seemingly indefinite school suspension for a threat he said was made in self-defense. Late last month, James said, a bully stalked him and his younger brother on their way home from school. To ward him off, James said he was going to go home and get a gun.
That apparently ended the incident but began a 12-year-old's hands-on lesson on zero-tolerance policies in today's schools. Administrators, mindful of fatal shootings that have occurred on or near campuses across the country, say they must intervene swiftly and forcefully any time gun threats emerge.
As James adjusted to his new routine of ramen noodles, Nickelodeon cartoons and catch-up homework, the suspended student and parents Vincent and Jeanette Falletta -- a government contractor and insurance agent, respectively -- found themselves regretful and bewildered. The Fallettas said they were shocked that James, who had no school disciplinary record and never showed a gun, was labeled a "more than low" threat in an initial review of the matter.
They said that they felt genuinely sorry for what transpired and that some days of suspension would have been acceptable. But their frustration over the marathon suspension illuminates the private and emotional consequences for some families that encounter safety rules adopted after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.
"I just don't get why I have a million days of suspension," James said, daubing tears with his blanket. "After the first few days of suspension, I thought they were going to say, 'Don't do it again.' That'd be it. Then, they told me I was a 'more than low' threat. I just find that crazy."
Drawing on expertise from academics and law enforcement agencies such as the Secret Service, schools nationwide in recent years have created procedures on how to handle student threats. In Prince William, Fairfax and Howard county schools, among others, reports of threats undergo a risk or threat analysis. Students are labeled according to their threat level, and their mental health is reviewed to determine whether a serious incident could occur.
Prince William school officials declined to comment on James's case, citing confidentiality regulations. Accounts of other students involved were unavailable because officials could not identify them, also because of confidentiality rules.
In general, a student who makes a credible threat against another student, teacher or the school is immediately suspended and later taken to the school with parents for questioning by a psychologist and social worker.
"We're looking at whether the student is rejected or excluded by peers. You're looking at a history of violence," said Audrey Davis, a clinical psychologist who is the Prince William school system's threat-assessment coordinator. "We've had kids who say, 'I feel like the Virginia Tech guy.' I have students who have revealed they are having hallucinations, that demons are speaking to them, telling them to destroy."
Prince William rates students who make threats as high, moderate or low risks. In Fairfax, dangerous students are labeled as substantive or transient threats.
Students with good grades and behavior records, such as James, who make serious missteps pose a problem: How do you handle an otherwise solid student who for the first time acts dangerously?
"Any time you have a weapon mentioned, you need to look thoughtfully, but in your process of interviewing the student, you give consideration to all factors," said Dede Bailer, psychology and preventive services director for Fairfax schools.
James and his family gave this account of the incident, corroborated by school documents examined by The Washington Post:
On Feb. 26, James and one of his siblings, Joseph, a fourth-grader, were getting off the school bus when another student, a boy, began mocking a girl. Joseph told the boy to stop, and the two got into a fight. Then the boy followed the brothers from the bus stop, even though he lived on another street.
James, fearing the boy would attack, told Joseph he would run ahead, get a gun and call 911. Then Joseph asked the boy whether he was "afraid of a gun." James went upstairs to his parents' room and retrieved his Airsoft rifle (which fires plastic pellets, not bullets) and a cellphone. When Joseph came home, their pursuer was gone, but James was upstairs holding the gun, which was not operable because it did not have its battery.
The boys did not tell their parents what happened. The next day, Vincent Falletta was called to pick up James at school and was told that he was being suspended for at least five days and Joseph for one. It was not clear why James's suspension was extended.
The next week, James and his parents met with Rosa Parks officials. The Fallettas said they received conflicting information about James's label: one had him as a "more than low" threat, another as "high."
A few days later, the Fallettas wrote 80 friends seeking support.
Bob Kirkpatrick, a Pentagon consultant, said he was in disbelief when he received the e-mail. "I am sure it took a lot of courage to admit this would have happened," Kirkpatrick said. "I probably would have talked to only very close friends."
James spent last Wednesday watching television ("The Backyardigans") and doing homework. "I'm worried about the social studies SOL," he said, referring to a state test. "If you don't pass it, you get remediation."
Later, he went upstairs to study scalene and equilateral triangles.
Thursday, James and his parents met with a school psychologist and social worker. The first questions seemed to them tough but somewhat relevant: Will James adjust well in middle school because he is sensitive? Should he be sent to an alternative school?
Later, they were asked questions that they said seemed bizarre.
"Some of the questions were like, 'Does he overeat? Does he hurt animals?' That was on there. My husband and I were chuckling," Jeanette Falletta said. "Others were, 'Does he stare off into space?' If my son was really a problem, would I really admit to it on the questionnaire?"
About 8 p.m. Thursday, suspension day 11, the school called the Fallettas. James was allowed to return to school Friday. But he was not overjoyed. "He was wondering what everyone else was thinking of him," the mother said. "He was like, 'I don't know if I want to go back to school.' "