Privacy vs. safety: Mt. Diablo district faces backlash over silence on student’s alleged kill list

In an age of anxiety over school massacres, a Walnut Creek middle schooler’s behavior triggered alarm after he allegedly threatened to stab another boy with a drumstick and repeatedly told a girl he’d “slit her throat.” His school computer’s search history included searches for how to get a gun and make others disappear, and he revealed to school staff that at least four students were on his “kill list.”

Mt. Diablo Unified School District, still reeling from a high school girl being injured last year in a stabbing by a boy wearing a “Scream” movie mask, dealt quickly with the potential threat. Administrators suspended the Foothill Middle School student, alerted police who searched his home and put him on a mental health hold, and notified the families involved.

“This was a very successful situation,” said Mt. Diablo Unified School District superintendent Adam Clark. “It was flagged. Before anyone even knew it was flagged, it was dealt with.”

But not everyone viewed the district’s response as a success. It revealed the tension school officials face in weighing potential threats posed by children under their supervision and when and how to disclose their actions after determining a student is dangerous.

Nearly a month after police were first alerted to the student’s concerning behavior, most students, teachers and families at the school still hadn’t been notified of the potential threat. Many complained they first learned about it through a Bay Area News Group article on the police action. The principal eventually acknowledged the incident in a May 28 schoolwide email, but it is unclear if or when the boy was allowed to return to class.

“I understand the district’s need for confidentiality,” Diane Samuels, whose 14-year-old granddaughter attends the middle school, said, “but the district has a sacred duty to protect all the students at the school. … What they’ve done is they’ve protected one student at the peril of all the others and that’s just not acceptable.”

While Clark said he couldn’t discuss the student’s case because student discipline matters are confidential under the California Education Code, the district balances attempts to rehabilitate students with the need to take every threat seriously.

“We do not mess around with this,” Clark said. “If a student makes a threat … we immediately call the police.”

Some have questioned whether schools’ zero-tolerance stance toward student threats does more harm than good.

The suspended middle school boy’s family didn’t respond to requests for comment but told police they did not think he was a threat and spoke in anger because of how he was treated at school.

In a 2022 report on gun violence in schools in the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, anti-gun-violence group Everytown for Gun Safety said “zero tolerance” policies toward student threats “can end up punishing students who exhibit behavior that actually requires compassionate intervention.”

Police searched the Foothill Middle School student’s home for weapons in early May but didn’t seize anything. Walnut Creek Police Department’s Lieutenant Bruce Jower said the case is still under investigation and the department has not seen or received the alleged kill list.

Clark explained that when a student breaks the law on campus, there are certain things he is unable to do when notifying families, either because it breaks the Education Code or because it may jeopardize the investigation. He added that he chose not to notify the entire 29,000-student district because he felt the incident only involved a few students and didn’t endanger the entire school community.

In a 2019 analysis of targeted school violence in U.S. public schools, the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center found that there were warning signs in every incident of school violence which led others to be concerned, and most attackers had previously threatened others or mentioned their intent to carry out an attack.

Abby Clements, a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a 20-year-old former student shot and killed 20 children and six adults in 2012, who co-founded Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence, said districts have a responsibility to keep the community informed about violent threats.

“I get why they don’t want to release everything, I understand they want to make sure everyone feels safe,” Clements said. “But that’s just not being honest. You can deliver the message in a way that’s not going to necessarily cause panic.”

Tom Steele, director of school safety planning at the Campus Safety Group, which works with districts to create school safety plans, said that while schools are not legally required to notify parents of safety incidents, it’s generally recommended. He added that for cases like Foothill Middle School’s recent incident, schools miss the opportunity to show that the systems in place are working and the district averted violence.

Along with camera systems, anonymous tip lines and behavioral health resources, Clark said Mt. Diablo Unified has several safety procedures and policies in place designed to flag concerning behavior and prevent school violence.

The district’s school computers have firewalls designed to restrict certain websites. If a student searches for keywords, including weapons, the system will notify law enforcement and, in some cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigation before it notifies school officials. After the school becomes aware of a threat, Clark said the district considers consequences.

Clark said the district can suspend a student for up to five days, after which the student can return to school, unless the school chooses to explore expulsion.

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For a situation where a student had searched for weapons or threatened to bring harm to other kids, the district would recommend expulsion, he said. However, he added that the expulsion process is lengthy and can take months, and the longest a student can be expelled is one year.

Samuels said she had two sleepless nights “agonizing” over whether to send her granddaughter to school after learning of the student’s threats, though they are in different grades. While she did let her granddaughter attend class, she knew of a few families who kept their kids out of school after the incident because they didn’t know if the student was still in school.

Clark said the district would continue to work with police and ensure students are safe on campus, and he defended the district’s approach, noting those who’ve carried out past school massacres signaled their intent and that the violence is harder to stop once it starts.

“The best way we can prevent and keep our students safe is to have people talking, so all those things we’ve done,” Clark said. “Every school shooting, there have been signs ahead of time that it was coming, and even when there have been armed guards at the schools, even when police have been called early on, it hasn’t always saved everyone.”

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