School shootings are rare. But threats aren’t. How do schools manage?

Monitor staff
Sunday, February 18, 2018

Despite school shootings being fairly rare, threats of violence from students can be fairly routine. And that’s put schools and local police in the tough spot of regularly trying to parse empty threat from deadly intent with only a small sample size to go on.

“Even if there are a few dozen of these cases that we can study, that’s not really enough to fully characterize the nature of the more serious (threats) from the less serious ones,” said David Finkelhor, the Director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Lots of kids make threats, have fantasies. But the number who actually act on it are quite small.”

Area police said they approach threats by assuming the worst and working their way backwards. Whether it’s a teenager making veiled threats to an ex-girlfriend after a breakup, a bomb threat written on a bathroom wall, or someone suggesting to a friend they not attend school on Monday, multiple officers are often assigned to the case and work for days on it.

“It’s a tap on the resources,” Concord police Lt. Sean Ford said. “But we readily expend them.”

In Concord, police were posted outside of Rundlett Middle School for several days last spring after a pair of suspended students allegedly returned to campus to intimidate peers. And in Pembroke, the high school has been put on lockdown or evacuated about once a year since at least 2015 because of threats.

“Unfortunately these threats have made us pretty reactive, pretty good at our jobs,” said Pembroke police chief Dwayne Gilman. Each time the school is evacuated, the entire department is often at the school – alongside a few officers from nearby towns.

In Vermont, just one day after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 dead this week, police arrested an 18-year-old threatening “mass casualties” at Fair Haven Union High. A search of Jack Sawyer’s car found a 12-gauge shotgun and a notebook titled “The Journal of an Active Shooter.” Police filed the charges after a girl shared text-messages with authorities sent by Sawyer calling the Parkland shooting “fantastic.”

In Exeter, a 16-year-old was arrested Friday for threatening to “shoot up” his high school.

“One of the biggest things of course is to create a high degree of bystander vigilance. Because a common feature about a lot of these episodes is that the perpetrator leaks their intentions in some way,” Finkelhor said.

The heightened anxiety around school shootings has also pushed administrators to be more transparent with the community, said SAU 67 superintendent Dean Cascadden, even when it comes the things were almost certainly stupid, misguided jokes.

“Threats that before we might not have addressed in a public way, we address in a public way,” he said.

He remembered one note, scrawled on a bathroom wall about a decade ago, about a “bom” in the building. Cascadden assumed someone who couldn’t spell the word likely didn’t have the wherewithal to actually build an explosive, but he went ahead and told parents about the incident anyway.

Still, there’s plenty schools can’t say, especially when the perpetrator is a juvenile, because of federal privacy laws.

And confidentiality concerns aside, there’s also security. Cascadden said parents often ask for the school’s emergency response plan – something districts precisely don’t want to make public, and at the minimum don’t want online, for fear an attacker would use the information.

A difficult event – like a break-up, or being suspended – usually precedes a kid making a threat, and there’s often an underlying mental health issue. Many have emphasized that school climate, and the availability of mental health treatment, are key.

“Many kids who are feeling despair or having fantasies of this sort might actually come to someone and talk about it. I do think we could do more, especially with boys, to show them that seeking help is not a form of weakness or a compromising of their masculinity,” Finkelhor said.

But addressing the mental health aspect of the issue is difficult, Cascadden said, because there’s a legitimate fear of stigmatizing and already misunderstood topic. And because resources are finite.

“How much can you do, and what are your resources at hand?” he said.

As the opioid crisis rages on and the national economic recovery skips over entire towns, schools are increasingly adding staff to deal with mental health and related issues, Cascadden said. But the crisis counselors, behavioral specialists, and social workers that increasingly show up in budgets are expensive – and often a tough sell in March, when many voters complain the district is increasingly spending money on things outside the realm of academics.

“I kind of agree with (them). But if we don’t deal with it, nobody else will,” Cascadden said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)