SB 5214, for example, requires that any student caught bringing a gun to school be given a mental health evaluation. "If a child brings a gun to school, they're crying out for help," proclaims State Senator Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell), author of the bill. She explains that the evaluation, which would be shared with parents but not necessarily with the kids themselves, would assist courts in deciding whether to return a student to the community or to social services for help, such as therapy or hospitalization.
Jerry Sheehan, Legislative Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, finds this bill "terribly confusing, and not good medicine." He explains, "The violation of a law being equated with mental illness is a dangerous concept." The fact that a record is created is also problematic: now, every kid caught with a gun, whether or not a mental illness is involved, will have an evaluation in their file, stigmatizing them arbitrarily.
And that prospect is even more menacing, given HB 1153, which aims to make it easier for schools, legal agencies, and juvenile courts to share "dangerous" students' criminal histories and pending arrests. Sheehan believes that the mental health records required by SB 1524 will also be shared.
HB 1153, sponsored by State Rep. Joyce McDonald (R-Puyallup), won unanimous support in both the House and Senate. Passed under the "school safety" rubric, it gives schools the right to deny admission to nonresident and home-schooled students who have histories of criminal, violent, or "disruptive" behavior, as well as gang membership or long expulsions. "This sets the groundwork for demonizing kids in the eyes of government or school bureaucracies," says Sheehan. "Schools can use any basis to say no to a kid."
The Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI)'s legal department in Olympia is still exploring how the new bills, already signed by Governor Locke, will jibe with federal standards regarding student records. According to an SPI spokeswoman, student files are, for the time being, "confidential." That means only school officials and parents or legal guardians are allowed access; parents have to file subpoenas if they want records to be shared with outside parties. Police and mental health records haven't traditionally been kept in student files at all.
The ACLU's Sheehan believes federal policy will give way for the local initiatives. "Schools and law enforcement agencies have been chomping the bit to officialize the exchange of information," he says.
One thing that won't change as a result of the laws, however, is that students under 18 will still have no direct access to their school files. The SPI spokeswoman says kids rarely complain about this policy, but if they do, "they're out of luck."