ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Schools across New York began the academic year with a new tool intended to prevent student suicides and violence: the ability to ask a court to remove a troubled person’s access to firearms.
About a third of U.S. states have so-called “red flag” laws, which allow courts to temporarily seize guns from people believed to be a danger to themselves or others, but New York is the first to empower schools to petition a court themselves for such an order, rather than go through local law enforcement.
In New York, school principals are now allowed to petition the court for an “extreme risk protection order” requiring the safe storage of firearms the youth might have access to, such as a parent’s gun. Supporters of the law say educators are uniquely suited to pick up on the kind of troubling behavior seen before school shootings, like the 2018 attack in Parkland, Florida, in which an expelled student killed 17 people at his former high school.
With the law so new, though, New York schools are still crafting procedures or waiting on guidance to help them figure out when and how to take action if the need arises. Several school systems contacted by The Associated Press said they’re not yet sure what the law will look like in action.
Do they step in each time a student tells a guidance counselor he’s feeling depressed and suicidal? What about if a student overhears a classmate talking in the hall or sees post on social media about wanting to shoot up the school? And when should a school still turn to law enforcement, rather than try to handle a petition themselves?
John Kelly, a former president of the New York Association of School Psychologists, said he expects schools would file petitions only in the most extreme cases. Schools that follow best practices, he said, should have threat and risk assessment protocols to help them decide whether a situation is serious enough for court intervention. That process, he said, should include finding out the context of the threat and gathering background information on the student, like any past behavioral issues.
“It’s not a quick judgment,” said Kelly, a school psychologist. “It’s not based on hearsay.”
Peter Kruszynski, the principal of a middle school in Lancaster, New York, and president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, recalled an instance where the school investigated a student who had reportedly talked about a shooting, but instead was simply discussing going to a gun range with his father.
“Sometimes kids say things for attention,” he said, noting that the law will require schools to present the courts with evidence.
Red flag laws have proliferated since the Parkland shooting, with legislation now on the books in 17 states and Washington, D.C.
It is not yet clear how effective such laws are in reducing suicides or shootings. Some studies have estimated that hundreds of lives have been saved in states that have the laws, though research has been limited so far.
Use of red flag procedures also varies widely in states that allow such petitions, as they are used rarely in some states and hundreds of times each year in others.
Opponents of the laws say they can be used to take away firearms from people who have not been accused or convicted of any crime.
“It appears you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Tom King, executive director of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association.
Tom Ristoff, director of public safety at Syracuse City School District, said the district has discussed the law but is waiting for more guidance from state education officials. A New York City Department of Education official issued a statement saying the agency is “reviewing how best to make our personnel aware of this legal process.”
The New York State Education Department said in a statement that it encourages districts to consult with school district attorneys on when to seek a “red flag” petition, but did not make someone available to discuss the challenges schools might face in crafting policies and procedures.