Beth Nakamura | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Sanders walks to Parkrose High one spring morning.


The Oregonian/Oregonlive

The worried father understood that when school officials said they were putting his teenager through a threat assessment, what they meant was "We think the next school shooter could be your son." 

Like almost every parent who sends a child to a school in America these days, Mark feared the next school shooting. He wanted to believe the school's threat assessment system would help make sure Portland wasn't the next Parkland.

So when a police officer came to his home without a warrant, Mark welcomed him inside. He handed over the family guns despite having no legal obligation to do so.

He told his nerdy, logical 16-year-old to be patient and remember what Spock from Star Trek always said: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

Be open, show you have nothing to hide, let the process work and you'll be cleared, Mark thought.  Yet here he was, about to bring his family bad news: Parkrose High still considered his son a threat. 

As he pulled into the driveway, three neighborhood boys played outside before dinner, the way boys do, with toy guns. 

How, Mark wondered, do you tell the difference between a normal interest in guns and a dangerous one?

As the body count from school shootings has risen, school officials across the nation have been forced to consider versions of this question. Administrators use detailed protocols and checklists to examine the circumstances of students who may pose risks. 

The pressure to prevent the worst has grown as students have begged adults to make sure they aren't next to die. In a nation divided over gun control, school threat assessments offer another option: Find a way to control the student.

It's uncomfortable territory for educators. They're acutely aware that if they overlook the smallest sign, the consequences could be devastating and irrevocable.  

To protect student confidentiality, those formal threat assessments are highly secret. But one Oregon family agreed to allow an unfettered view into their case as it unfolded. The family provided documents and records of meetings with school officials and allowed a reporter into their home for extended periods over several months.

They did this, they said, because they hoped making visible the experience of undergoing a threat assessment would inform the debate about how to keep students safe. What happened to their son sheds light on how the desire to thwart a shooting can have unintended consequences.