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Threats are no joke amid heightened school safety fears

Originally published November 9, 2022 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Schools across the nation, from historically Black colleges and universities to elementary schools, have been faced with yet another curveball this academic year — threats of mass violence.

Often, these threats come to the school via posts on social media, rumors, group chats, text threads or verbal claims. Despite swift responses from adults responsible for keeping the students safe, these threats create fear and confusion as schools perform evacuations and lockdowns, and concerned parents keep their students home that day. Threats disrupt learning and stoke anxiety at a time when learning is crucial to getting back on track from a tumultuous couple of years caused by the pandemic.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, there is an elevated risk of threats of targeted violence as kids return to school from the pandemic. The agency released information on what schools and parents should do in response to the risk. Though sifting risk from rumor is extremely difficult, there are some clear steps that everyone can take to relieve fears, calm anxieties and work to ensure the safety of the schoolhouse.

For targeted violence in schools, the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center has conducted multiple studies on individuals who successfully carried out an attack on schools. That effort has identified these commonalities among school attackers:

  • 94% had at least one identifiable “home life factor," which include: parental divorce/separation, family financial difficulty, parent/sibling arrested/incarcerated, parent/sibling substance abuse, domestic violence/abuse, family mental health issues.

  • 91% had observable psychological (depression, suicidal ideation, anger, psychotic symptoms), behavioral (defiance, poor impulse control, violation of social norms) or neurological (developmental delays, cognitive deficits) symptoms.

  • 83% were retaliating for a grievance.

  • 80% were bullied by their classmates. Some of the attackers actively sought help to address bullying but received an ineffective response or no response at all.

  • 74% showed signs of frequent, intense anger and/or communicated that they were becoming increasingly prone to anger.

  • 41% were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to commit suicide.

A barrage of monthly statistics shows rises in youth depression, anxiety, suicide and self-harm. Hurt people hurt. It should not surprise us that youths are showing they’re not OK by making threats of violence, fighting, or violent speech and behavior.

It’s important to note threats expressed are not always threats posed. When a person makes a threat verbally or on social media, it doesn’t always mean it’s legitimate. No one should feed the cycle of gossip or defamatory statements in-person or online, but rather assess it and report it to the school. Substantiation matters: take a screenshot, forward a voicemail, copy a post.

Most times, threats are not only false in nature, but they are also, in fact, only rumors of threats. So, how do we determine what is a real threat and what is a rumor or prank?

The National Threat Assessment Center has recommended forming Threat Assessment and Management Teams in communities to prevent school violence. The teams are school-based and composed of teachers, professors, administrators, guidance counselors and school resource officers who know the students and are familiar with the social dynamics of the current student body.

These threat assessment teams should be widely known to all stakeholders of schools, teachers, parents, administrators and students. The ways to refer an individual or threat to the school-based teams should be widely disseminated.

Ultimately, there should be enough caring adults working at schools that no student’s name or home situation is unknown. Getting to know students and their situations is integral in helping students succeed, in and out of the classroom.

The situation in many public schools is that there is inadequate funding for this crucial component of the educational environment. This kind of student knowledge can’t be captured with data. It needs to be acknowledged that relational connections go hand in hand with information delivery.

All stakeholders should be aware of facts and know how to act on concerns. If you are unsure of your school’s response to threats of violence, reach out to your school. The climate of public schools must be built on transparency and mutual trust or the model will fail.

Parents and students must trust the teachers and administration and know that they take safety seriously and every threat is evaluated to the utmost. Students must know there is a straightforward way to report suspicions or threats in an anonymous manner and that their identity will be protected so there is not fear of being labeled a snitch.

Administration and teachers must trust parent and student feedback. They should communicate clearly and effectively, leaving no guesswork whether it is safe for kids at school that day. Safety should be built, not assumed. There must be transparent processes that are followed in the rare occasion threats are validated.

The presence of rumors and pranks has existed since the beginning of schools. But today rumors and information can spread rapidly through social media, chat groups and text threads along with the presence and accessibility of assault weapons. Recent violent incidents at schools have left people on high alert and with heightened anxiety and fear that the threats are real.

Can schools return to being safe havens for learning or will they continue to look more chaotic?

The choice is ours as participating members of the community to keep our schools safe. It will take everyone: voters regarding assault weapons and funding of school staff, parents teaching coping skills, and even students in group chats.

In the climate of heightened anxiety about violence in schools, the response from all must be clear and predictable: Threats are no joke.


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