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Parents Blast District Policy That Required School to Call Police About Kindergartner With Down Syndrome

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The parents of a Pennsylvania student with Down syndrome are demanding answers from their school district after police were called because their kindergartener got frustrated in class and made what turned out to be an innocuous threat to a teacher.

According to a statement written by Maggie Gaines, on Nov. 19, 2019, Gaines’ 6-year-old daughter Margot, who has Down syndrome, became upset when asked by her Valley Forge Elementary School teacher to transition to an activity Margot didn’t want to do. At one point as Margot tried to protest the change, Margot pointed her finger at the teacher and said, “I shoot you.”

In response, the teacher determined Margot’s actions to be a threat per a strict district policy. Margot was sent to the principal’s office, where it was quickly determined Margot didn’t really understand the implications of what she said.

“She really didn’t understand what she was saying, and having Down syndrome is one aspect, but I’m sure all 6-year-olds don’t really know what that means,” Gaines told CBS. “They were asking her questions, and she was saying, ‘Oh, I shoot mommy,’ laughs, or, ‘I shoot my brother.’ The principal asked, ‘Did you mean to hurt your teacher?’ And she said no and it seemed like she didn’t even know what that meant.”

The attached letter is from a T/E kindergarten parent whose 6-year-old daughter (who happens to have Down Syndrome) now…

Posted by BUILD Tredyffrin/Easttown on Sunday, February 2, 2020

Under the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District’s strict policy, Margot’s principal had to convene a threat assessment team. The team labeled Margot’s actions a “transient threat,” which is defined as an expression of anger or frustration with no intent to harm. It was also determined Margot wouldn’t face any school disciplinary action and didn’t need to have her individualized education plan (IEP) updated.

Margot’s principal, Rebecca Wills, also called Gaines to let her know the school was also required to call the police per the district policy, which Gaines said she wholeheartedly disagreed with. District administration, however, determined a police consultation to be necessary to carry out the letter of the district policy “without exception for every student, in  every situation.”

Gaines and her husband, Mark, joined Wills’ call to the Tredyffrin Police Department, where Margot’s information was collected as if they were taking a police report. The call was intended as a “consultation” with police, but Gaines said the officer who took their information said he didn’t view it as a consultation, but merely recording what happened. Gaines was also told the information — which includes that Margot threatened a teacher but without context around the situation — will remain on file indefinitely with the police department, even though Margot was not disciplined.

In advance of a Jan. 21 district policy meeting, Gaines sent a statement urging the district to change its threat assessment policy in light of what happened with Margot. A school board policy meeting held on Tuesday further opened the discussion of the district’s Policy 5401 to the public. One parent recalled how her middle-school-aged son was bullied and pushed to the floor the previous day. The police were not called on the perpetrating student in that incident, raising questions about why the district determined it was required to call the police in Margot’s case.

In her letter, Gaines also highlighted that students with disabilities are more likely to face school discipline that their typical peers. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, students with disabilities make up approximately 25% of students arrested and referred to law enforcement during the course of school discipline, even though they only make up about 12% of the school population. Students with disabilities are also more likely to be restrained, secluded or given out-of-school suspension than their non-disabled peers. People with disabilities are also far more likely to be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator.

Gaines also contacted Pennsylvania state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D) to bring the district’s policy and Margot’s story to his attention. He weighed in with a lengthy letter to Tredyffrin-Easttown School District’s board, questioning how the threat policy is being carried out. Dinniman wrote, in part:

As a state senator, an educator, and a parent, I am concerned when I hear that such important decisions appear to be guided blindly by written policy or legal interpretation without those in positions of authority using their judgment, experience, and commonsense to weigh in. Furthermore, I am 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 kindergarteners.

In the photos is the full text of the letter that I sent earlier today to the TESD and the TE School Board: "As a…

Posted by Senator Andy Dinniman on Tuesday, February 4, 2020

In a Facebook post, Gaines emphasized that she doesn’t blame Margot’s teachers or principal for police being called on her kindergarten daughter. Gaines appealed the district’s threat assessment discipline policy to the school board and hopes to initiate reform in how students like Margot are treated while balancing school safety.

“Something I want to make clear to anyone following the story about my daughter, who was the victim of an inappropriate school discipline policy, is that I do not in any way blame her teacher or principal for how this situation was handled,” Gaines wrote, adding:

They were merely following a policy in a manner in which they were directed to follow it. They have both been amazing advocates for Margot and have been there for my family in other situations when we’ve needed 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. 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.

From Maggie Reardon Gaines, Margot's mom:Something I want to make clear to anyone following the story about my…

Posted by BUILD Tredyffrin/Easttown on Friday, February 7, 2020

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo of the incorrect elementary school. It has since been updated.

Header image via lawcain/Getty Images

Originally published: February 7, 2020
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