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Originally published October 29, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified October 29, 2011 at 9:49 PM

Student-privacy laws complicate schools' ability to prevent attacks

The girl accused of stabbing two schoolmates at Snohomish High School last week had previously threatened the life of another student, but the district was barred from disclosing the information because of laws protecting the privacy of students.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Five months before she allegedly attacked two schoolmates with a knife, nearly killing one, a Snohomish High School student underwent counseling after she threatened to kill another student's boyfriend.

The 15-year-old Snohomish girl was allowed to return to school only after she presented proof she had attended counseling.

The earlier threats would have never been made public if the information wasn't contained in court documents charging the girl with first-degree attempted murder and first-degree assault in last Monday's attack.

Some Snohomish parents were surprised to learn of the earlier threat and have expressed concern that they weren't notified.

But student information, including mental-health records, is tightly held by school districts because of federal privacy laws. The district says it cannot even discuss whether counselors or teachers were made aware of the earlier threats because of privacy laws.

The case underscores the delicate and complicated balancing act faced by schools in their efforts to meet the educational and privacy rights of individual students, as well as their need to ensure the safety of the larger student body.

"It's a difficult situation, there's no two ways about that," said Judith Billings, a former superintendent of public instruction in Washington. "And it's much more common than people are willing to admit."

Along with the right to free education, students have a right to privacy, according to state and federal administrative codes and laws. Those laws are set out in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Revised Code of Washington and Washington's Administrative Code Title 392.

Boiled down, they say schools cannot disclose information about a student's educational needs, health issues, behavioral problems or even, with a few exceptions, most criminal convictions, according to Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the state's superintendent of public instruction.

On the other hand, schools are also federally mandated to provide safe schools for the entire student body.

Sometimes, in cases that vex school officials and district administrators, the rights of the individual and the rights of the larger student body compete.

Take the case of Barry Loukaitis, who was 14 when he killed two fellow students and a teacher during a 1996 shooting spree at Frontier Junior High School in Moses Lake. The district was later sued when it was disclosed that Loukaitis had exhibited threatening behavior before the shooting.

James Rogers, an attorney who represented a student wounded in the shootings, believes school districts must act principally on behalf of student safety.

"If somebody threatens the safety or the life of another, you have to act on the side of caution," he said. "You must not only take it seriously, you have to remove the threat."

Rogers argued in the civil case that the Moses Lake School District was negligent in not seeing that Loukaitis "presented a reasonable risk of harm and that the risk was foreseeable." According to Rogers, Loukaitis was an obviously troubled child whose writings, artwork and manner of dress called out for investigation.

"He said threatening things, he dressed bizarrely and his drawings had became very, very dark," Rogers said.

Many teachers noticed, he said, but no one did anything.

Moses Lake settled a lawsuit filed by Rogers' client for an undisclosed amount.

Loukaitis, who was convicted as an adult of three counts of murder, is serving a life sentence without a chance of parole.

Rogers said he was troubled to read the account of the Snohomish High stabbings.

"Haven't school districts learned anything from this case and other cases like it around the country?" he said. "I don't want to read the same story in another two years."

In the case of the Snohomish High sophomore who attacked freshmen April Lutz and Bekah Staudacher, the earlier threat resulted in her suspension last April. She was not allowed back in school until she underwent counseling at a Kirkland psychiatric hospital and received a letter indicating she was "safe to return to school," according to charging documents in the case.

The Times is not naming the girl because she has been charged as a juvenile. She will face a hearing next month to determine if she will be prosecuted in adult court for what police are calling an unprovoked attack.

William Coats, a Pierce County attorney who provides legal counsel to school districts, said it's important to remember that schools are safe.

"Let me just state this: despite what gets publicized when something goes wrong, schools are the safest place for kids to be," he said.

Still, he said he understands why the prohibition on disclosure of students' mental-health problems can concern parents.

When a school gets a notice from law enforcement about an adult sexual offender living in the neighborhood, the school will typically alert parents. However, if a sexual offender is a student at the school, privacy laws prohibit notification in all but a few extreme cases.

"We can't do it," Coats said. "What we can do, and what we do, is encourage our schools to send out advisories at least once a year reminding parents to work with their children on developing good habits."

In addition, parents are not legally required to inform schools about their child's health issues, and medical professionals are bound by confidentiality rules not to disclose.

"The schools may have no real way of knowing what's going on," said Doug Diekema, a physician at Seattle Children's hospital who practices pediatric emergency medicine and has a background in bioethics.

While it's not uncommon for schools to have issues with adolescents facing psychiatric crises, Diekema says disclosure of that information could be harmful to individual students.

"Stigma is a big deal, as any parent of a middle-schooler will tell you," he said. "Being different can make for a pretty rough ride."

From a health-care provider's viewpoint, he said, confidentiality is a "huge deal" for adolescents seeking help on health care, especially mental-health care.

"If we can't guarantee that their visit will remain confidential, they just won't come," he said.

What schools can do, said former superintendent Billings and California-based school-safety expert Ron Garrison, is investigate potential problems and follow up.

Schools may determine that a child's behavior makes him or her eligible for special-needs programs where they can be more closely monitored and receive intervention, Billings said.

In addition, school districts may place the child in an alternative school or turn to outside help.

"If a school has 3,000 students, it may be hard to provide the level of help needed," said Garrison, a former teacher who is a consultant, trainer and litigation-support specialist in school safety and security. "Sometimes, taking a child out of one school environment and providing intensive intervention can be the best thing in the world for that kid."

Snohomish School District spokeswoman Kristin Foley said the district is reviewing its policies and procedures "to make sure that students' legal rights, as well as their rights to an education, are protected."

Travis Pickett, a Snohomish High senior who was among the first to come to the victims' aid after Monday's attack, said students aren't blaming the school.

"How could they?" he said last week. "This was a random thing by one girl out of the entire state."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Material from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.

April Lutz, the Snohomish High School freshman critically wounded in a stabbing at school Monday, was released from Everett's Providence Regional Medical Center on Saturday, said Cheri Russum, Providence spokeswoman.

Firefighters, paramedics and a team of doctors who worked more than six hours helped bring the girl back from the brink of death after the attack, which left her with wounds to her heart, lungs, neck and thigh, and more than a dozen other areas.

There was little fanfare as the 14-year-old left the hospital, Russum said. "Her family just wanted to get her home."

Carol M. Ostrom, Seattle Times health reporter

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