Bo Magnusson, school safety supervisor, said threats are on the rise in the school system and principals are struggling to manage the problems.
“We started seeing significant threats,” Magnusson told the school board’s policy committee Aug. 1. “It was new to us. The kids were getting younger, and we didn’t really know how to deal with that.”
He worked with local law enforcement, mental health providers and others to form a support team. They called it a “threat assessment team,” but board members have questioned if existing and proposed school policies allow for such a group.
Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, said, “You’re operating a threat assessment team under what authority? It’s not in a policy.”
Magnusson said the team operated under the oversight of the director of schools, chief of police, county sheriff and the District Attorney’s office.
“We’re just trying to help the schools,” he said. “I don’t know that we’re operating under a specific policy.”
Boston said that was the source of confusion.
“I don’t want to tie your hands. I want you to do what you’re doing. But it needs to be under the guidance of a specific entity,” she said. “There has to be a captain of a ship.”
Magnusson said the situation being addressed determines which entity takes a lead. School issues are led by school personnel.
“They [law enforcement] follow school policy to the point it becomes a criminal investigation,” he said. “Then they kick us out.”
Magnusson said the team started to provide consistency in how situations are addressed from school to school. As they were working out the details, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation that allows school systems to form threat assessment teams, with detailed instructions on who is to be part of the team and how it is to operate.
The Tennessee School Boards Association has offered a proposed threat assessment policy; however, it anticipates changes as the Tennessee Board of Education develops rules and regulations for the teams.
The policy committee also discussed how the threat assessment team fits into the existing policy on emergency plans and crisis management.
Tom Netherton, 6th District representative, said the existing emergency plans and crisis management policy offers both a proactive approach to developing plans and a reactive response once a crisis has occurred. The treat assessment team, however, offers a proactive approach to school safety issues.
Boston said the proposed threat assessment policy doesn’t meet the legislative intent of the General Assembly. She continued to question who formed the team and how it operates.
“It’s a good program, but there has to be some guidelines,” she said. “If we leave it without a policy, we still don’t know who they operate under.”
Director of Schools Janet Graham said that depended on the level of the threat.
“If it is a law enforcement issue, we step back,” she said. “If it’s just us, we take the driver’s seat.”
Tony Brock, 5th District representative, asked who determines when an incident becomes a criminal investigation.
Magnusson said the sheriff’s office and police department were involved early on because the school resource officers are law enforcement officers and not school personnel. He said the school team will contact their supervisors when something happens.
“At that point, it’s a joint operation. We’re trying to help the schools and figure it out,” he said. “At the point they go, ‘Yep, we crossed over,’ that’s when they contact criminal investigations.”
Magnusson said he does not serve search warrants or conduct a law enforcement investigation. Sometimes, incidents may be both criminal and have school-level consequences.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, said, “It sounds like a thin line.”
He said the policy needs to show which entity has authority at each level. He said he wants the policy to align with “boots on the ground.” He suggested the policy go before the safety committee of the board before it is recommended. He also noted the crisis management policy doesn’t mention the district school safety supervisor, which needs to be included.
There are crisis and threat assessment teams at schools that include the principal, guidance counselor, school resource officer and Safe Schools Counselor. The emergency plan and crisis management policy needs to be revised to reflect that school-level team, the committee said.
Magnusson said the district-level team serves as a resource and backup to the school-level team.
Magnusson shared the sheriff’s office directions for school resource officers.
“The school resource officer shall follow the school district threat assessment procedures until such time the threat is determined to be a credible threat that requires a law enforcement investigation,” Magnusson read. “At that time, the school resource officer shall contact the special investigations unit to take over the investigation.”
“In those early stages, we’re trying to find information,” Magnusson said.
Board attorney Earl Patton asked if there are any written procedures at this time. Magnusson said no because of the variety of threats and incidents taking place on social media. The team uses a variety of resources from law enforcement and mental health, though not every resource is needed in each situation.
“It’s merely meant as a support to help the schools deal with the increasing threats we’re facing in our schools,” Magnusson said. “Then if we can help manage threats as we proceed, that’s what we’re doing.”
Brock asked, “Will our children be any safer with this policy than they would be without it until we can work it out?”
Magnusson said, “I can guarantee you this — I can’t work any harder than I am right now to make our children safer.”
Boston said Magnusson has the authority as the school safety supervisor to consult with and reach out to other community resources.
“You are in charge of our security. You have full authority to bring in whoever you need. Do we have to label it?” Boston asked.
Several board members and Magnusson noted the proposed policy said the school system “may” establish a threat assessment team.
“We don’t have to have a threat assessment team, per se,” Boston said.
The committee took no action on the threat assessment team policy.
Stone moved to table the emergency plan and crisis management policy until Magnusson and other individuals he deems necessary review and develop a proposed policy. Netherton supported the motion and it was approved.
Graham said they could bring the threat assessment policy back once final regulations have been approved.
Magnusson said the state has provided training that uses the term threat assessment team, and many of those practices were incorporated into their procedures.
“We’re operating under these guidelines because it’s good stuff,” he said.
The policy committee also tabled action on the news releases policy to allow board members time to consider new language.
Board members wanted clarification on who has the authority to issue press releases or call press conferences and how the board was represented in those public statements.
Brock said he wants to be informed before information was released to the media or a press conference is held.
“I do not like to be questioned about something because someone heard it before I did,” Brock said. “I think it makes the board look uninformed. Uncaring, even.”
Complicating matters is that sometimes other entities call a press conference, like local law enforcement following the arrest of the sixth-grade students in the spring and in the aftermath of a fatal shooting at the school bus garage last fall.
“That’s fine. Law enforcement has every authority to do that. But if it’s something to do with our children, I think our community expects to hear from this board,” she said.
Magnusson said he hoped the board would keep a spirit of cooperation with other local agencies.
“When everybody comes to the table, we’re very consistent in what we put out there,” he said.