But under district protocol, the incident still had to be reported to local law enforcement.
“It was very clear from the beginning that she didn’t understand what she was saying, and the teacher and the principal agreed,” Gaines told CBS Philadelphia last week. “But then they said they needed to convene a threat assessment team.”
The mother of two is fighting to change the policy, noting that nationwide data shows students with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be disciplined. Margot sometimes has trouble transitioning from one activity to the next, her mother recently explained. And when her teacher asked her to do something she didn’t want to do, she got frustrated and acted out.
“I imagine the utterance was not unlike the instances when I’ve told her it’s time for bed and she says, ‘I hate bed. I hate mommy,’” Gaines said in her statement to the board. “As most parents can attest, I have learned not to take offense. For I know that a short time later she is usually cuddled up to me, while we read bedtime stories and exchange kisses and cuddles before saying good night.”
But Margot’s teacher viewed the gesture as requiring a response and sent the 6-year-old to the principal’s office, Gaines said. In accordance with district policy, the school’s threat assessment team reviewed the incident, ultimately concluding it had been an isolated event and the kindergartner didn’t actually present any danger. Gaines said the team didn’t even suggest Margot be disciplined.
“The principal asked, ‘Did you mean to hurt your teacher?’” Gaines told CBS Philadelphia. “And she said no and it seemed like she didn’t even know what that meant.”
In an interview with a local blogger, Gaines said she was impressed by how Valley Forge’s principal patiently demonstrated to Margot that “peace signs, high-fives and thumbs-up were fine but the gun gesture was not okay.” But then the principal told her law enforcement would have to be notified about the incident.
“I was fine with everything up until calling the police,” Gaines told CBS Philadelphia. “And I said, ‘You absolutely do not have to call the police. You know, this is ridiculous.’”
Though police have said officers only wrote up an incident report, which can’t be released to the general public and isn’t the same thing as having a criminal record, Gaines worries it could be used against her daughter in the future.
“When I’m having a disagreement with the school about Margot’s placement, will they bring it up?” she told the blog SAVVY Main Line. “What if there’s a school shooter and there’s a call out to see the records of anyone in the community that made threats?”
According to SAVVY Main Line, the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District ramped up its threat assessment protocols in 2018 in response to a spate of school shootings nationally and a highly publicized incident where a local middle-schooler was subjected to anti-Semitic threats. At a January meeting, one former school board member said the changes were “driven by events that occurred in our middle schools or high school,” and the intent had never been to involve police when elementary school students made “non-substantive” threats.
Another former school member who had a hand in drafting the current policy testified last week that he never imagined it would be applied to a 6-year-old with Down syndrome.
While unable to address the specifics of Margot’s case due to student privacy laws, the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District acknowledged in a statement to CBS Philadelphia that it was reviewing its school safety practices in response to a parent’s concerns. “When developing the current practice, the District worked collaboratively with parents, law enforcement and private safety/mental health agencies and legal consultants to ensure our safety measures reflected considerable input from both our local community and experts in the field of school safety,” the statement said.
Since January, when Gaines went public with her story, numerous other parents have expressed concerns about how the policy is being enforced. In a letter to district officials, Pennsylvania state Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Democrat who represents Tredyffrin, wrote he was “alarmed that a school seems to be acting as an extension of the police department in promulgating data and records on children as young as kindergartners.” He questioned the wisdom of requiring administrators to “blindly” follow a written policy, rather than allowing them make their own judgment calls.
The district isn’t alone in its strong reaction to such incidents. As The Washington Post’s Katie Shepherd reported, a 13-year-old girl in Kansas was charged with a felony in October after pointing a finger gun at her classmates and herself. Previously, both a 10-year-old boy in Ohio and a 6-year-old boy in Maryland were suspended for playfully flashing finger guns.
Gaines wrote on Facebook on Thursday that she doesn’t blame Margot’s teacher or principal for what happened. She commended them for being “amazing advocates” for her daughter, and said they “were merely following a policy in a manner in which they were directed to follow it.”
“So I don’t want folks to get the wrong impression about them or for anyone to interpret our public stance against this policy as an attack on either of them,” she wrote. “Going public with our story is about educating and informing our community about a policy that needs to change in order to protect all our students.”