Study finds rapid escalation of violent school threats
Schools face new wave of violent threats sent by social media and other electronic means, study says
Bomb threats sent by Facebook. School shooting threats sent through international proxy servers. A death threat scribbled on a restroom wall that triggers texting rumors throughout the school community. Parents and media scrambling to your school doorsteps. What should a principal and superintendent do?
A nationwide epidemic of violent school threats is breeding fear, anxiety and frustration for educators, children and parents. While the vast majority of these threats are anonymous and turn out to be hoaxes, they have to be investigated and taken seriously. Hundreds of schools are losing classroom teaching time, police are wasting resources, children are frightened, and parents are angry and alarmed.
“School threats are a fast growing problem. They send fear and panic through a community” says Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, who directed a new study of school threats across the country.
We reviewed 812 school threats across the country, from August 1 to December 31, 2014 – the first half of this school year. Based on available data, threats are up 158% since last year, when we did the first survey of this kind. This rapid escalation of school threats requires urgent attention.
Click here to learn more from our groundbreaking research of school threats.
Ken shares insights from our study of rapidly escalating violent school threats and what school leaders can do to prevent and manage them:
School Threats, School Violence Rumors and School Threat Assessment
One of the lasting lessons and legacies of the 1999 attack on Columbine High School, and subsequent school shootings, is that school and public safety officials must treat threats seriously. They must have protocols in place for assessing and managing threats to school safety.
School threat assessment is a gray area and administrators often find themselves walking a tightrope. Nine out of 10 threats may turn out to be unfounded, but no school administrator wants to be number 10.
Three common questions to begin assessing school threats:
- What is the motivation of the threat maker and credibility of the threat?
- Could the threat maker have the information on how to carry out the threat (such as information on how to make bombs or homemade weapons, for example)?
- Could the threat maker have access to the tools, and the capability to carry out the threat?
Today, we know the answers to questions two and three could easily be, “Yes.” Information on how to carry out many threats is easy to find on the Internet. The tools to carry out the threat can be as close as the local hardware, discount or other home supply store.
So educators and safety officials are often left focusing on the first question: What is the motivation of the threat maker and credibility of the threat? Unfortunately, this requires assessing human behavior and making a judgment call accordingly, which is not an easy task for even the most skilled criminologist, psychologist, psychiatrist or other student of human behavior.
The Importance of Making Cognitive, not Emotional, Responses to Threats
It is very understandable for school officials to make emotional decisions when faced with a threat to the safety of their children. However, it is at this time that cognitive, analytical decision-making must take over.
While school administrators may be emotionally tempted to quickly evacuate a school or close down schools, this may not be the most appropriate action, especially if the credibility of the threat is in question. Although we do not believe schools need “paralysis-by-analysis” guiding their decision-making process, we do believe that threat assessment protocols should be in place for a joint evaluation of threats by school officials working with law enforcement and other public safety officials.
It is critical that school officials follow emergency guidelines for managing bomb threats and other threats. Emergency guidelines help school leaders make cognitive decisions focused on the facts of the actual threat at hand. Such plans should be developed through a collaborative process with first responders and community partners. They should train staff thoroughly and practice, at a minimum, with tabletop exercises.
Schools should also develop separate crisis communications plans for getting out accurate information in a timely manner to parents, the media, and the broader community when rumors and threats occur. Given the viral nature of social media and text messaging, schools do not have the luxury of developing strategy during a crisis. School leaders should discuss these types of situations and have a crisis communications plan in place well ahead of an actual incident.
School Threat Assessment: Predicting Student and Youth Behavior
The good news is that school and police officials are getting much better at preventing high-profile tragedies. The bad news is that we will never be 100% successful because we are dealing with human behavior.
Adult behavior is difficult to predict and no one can do it with 100% certainty. Youth behavior is even more difficult to predict. Adolescent behavior is, by its nature, experimental and fluctuating.
In reviewing high-profile school shootings, we have made a number of observations:
- Adults tend to recognize radical, dramatic changes in youth behavior. However, adults continue to have difficulty in recognizing smaller, incremental changes in youth behavior.
- Early intervention to prevent violent incidents is complicated further because so many people have pieces of information about a child. The pieces are rarely put together to get the whole picture until after a crisis occurs.
- The majority of high-profile school shootings and other types of violence do not occur spontaneously. Most involve some kind of prior planning. They typically stem from the culmination of a series of deteriorating events experienced by the offender. The resulting violence often reflects an “end of road” action by the offender.
School Threat Assessment and Threat Management Basic Principles
The team at National School Safety and Security Services has more than 30 years of experience in addressing student and adult threats in school settings. We address these issues in-depth in our school safety, security, and crisis preparedness training programs.
What should I do if I find a “hit list” in a student’s possession? How should we deal with the kid who says he plans to kill other students and staff? How should we confront a situation when a kid says, “I’ll kill you,” to another student or staff?
While each school district and school should have its own threat assessment teams and school threat protocols, some basic guiding principals include:
- Treat all threats seriously.
- Investigate the incident promptly and efficiently.
- Use support staff and external resources as a part of a multidisciplinary threat assessment team to evaluate threats.
- Take appropriate disciplinary and criminal enforcement steps.
- Document the threats and actions taken.
- Enhance security measures, as appropriate, to insure the safety of all students, staff, and facilities.
It is important for school personnel to establish a threat assessment protocol to insure consistency and thoroughness in evaluating and responding to student and adult-originated threats. We believe that threat assessment involves analyzing the behavior process of the person making the threat, rather than using a “profile” checklist of specific characteristics as criteria.
A variety of questions focusing on the motivation, context, and other factors of the threat must be asked in each threat case. We recommend that educators know:
- What questions should be asked of witnesses? Victims? Suspects?
- Who should be involved in the assessment process?
- What questions should be asked in the assessment process?
- Which teachers and staff are in the best positions to detect early warning indicators of such threats?
Many experts are quick to point out that acts of violence, such as bombings, have occurred in our society without any threat or warning at all. The presence of a threat does not guarantee violence, nor does the absence of a threat guarantee that nothing will occur.
Very generally speaking, the general rule of thumb when assessing the credibility of threats focuses on the detail and specificity of the threat, and the behavioral actions toward planning and carrying out the threat. The more detailed and specific the threat, the more credible it may be. The more evidence of planning (hit lists, maps, specific times and locations documented, etc.) and action steps to carry out the threat (stockpiling of weapons, creation of suicide notes or videos, etc.), the more credibility given to the threat.
Assessing school-based threats is different from investigating threats against the President, for example. Unlike most law enforcement or military-type threat assessments, in schools we are dealing with kids. The key is striking a balance between the “kids will be kids” mentality of ignoring threats, or having teams of secret agents with dark glasses and trench coats following kids around. Schools are unique and there are school-specific recommendations for answering these and related questions.
The School Psychological Perspective on School Closing Due to Threats and Rumors
Dr. Scott Poland, Professor at the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova University, and an internationally recognized expert in school violence and school psychology, has expressed concern about the closing of schools too quickly during times of vague threats and rumors. Dr. Poland notes that it is widely known that K-12 school students often are unsupervised or less supervised when at home during the workday than when they are in school. He has also written about the importance of continuity of the educational process for maintaining “normalcy” for children.
Dr. Poland told the Chicago Tribune in April 2008 that schools should close as a last resort.
He said, “We shouldn’t close schools every time there is a threat of violence. In fact, in most instances, say of a bomb threat or something, you deal with the issue but then return to the operation of the school.”
Additional thoughts provided by Dr. Poland to National School Safety and Security Services:
“We need to remember that many threats of violence at school are made with the intent of disrupting education. The number of threats at schools often increases in the spring due to awareness of the anniversary of Columbine and other high profile tragedies. Students who have been bullied or harassed at school and who have experienced an unsuccessful school year may be especially frustrated and angry by the spring.
“School safety is an “inside job” and it is important to have all students involved in their own safety through classroom discussions and student participation on school safety task forces. There is also no substitute for knowing students and knowing them well. School personnel are encouraged to develop positive relationships with all students and if a threat is made the increased visibility of school staff and police at school will go a long way to alleviate both student and parent concerns about school safety.”
Dr. Poland’s advice reinforces the importance of schools having threat assessment protocols in place and having advance discussions among school and public safety officials about how they will respond if they face threats and rumors of school violence.
How School Leaders Can Communicate on School Safety in a World on Digital Steroids
“Social media that spread rumors like wildfire must be countered by school officials who have a solid crisis communications plan for managing rapidly escalating rumors around school safety issues,” said Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services. Trump says there are three critical communications components to countering fast moving rumors and school violence threats:
- Accurate – While there is growing pressure on school officials to release information quickly in a crisis or in periods of high rumors, accuracy is the most important factor. Whatever information school officials release must be accurate to the best of their knowledge at the time is it released
- Timely – Release information in a timely manner at the on-set of the rumors with periodic updates as necessary and appropriate
- Redundant in dissemination – Educators and safety officials must send the same information out on all school channels, including parent alert systems, social media, text messaging, school website, letters sent home and mass media. Not all parents and people in the community get their information from the same source. See recommendation #3 below for specific examples.
Recommendations to help school and safety officials manage vague threats, text message rumors of school violence and the rapid spread of fear include:
- Anticipate you will have an issue that accelerates like wildfire at some time in your school. Identify ahead of time what strategies you will use to counter it.
- Have redundancy in communications: Web site, direct communications to students and staff, mass parent notifications, letters to go home, etc. Messages from school officials must be put out in a timely and accurate manner with appropriate updates as incidents unfold.
- Discuss some potential scenarios with your district and building administrators and crisis teams to evaluate what the threshold will be for going full speed on your communications. If you go full speed on every single rumor, you might need two full-time employees just to counter rumors in one average secondary school. Try to get a feel for when a situation might rise to the level of being so disruptive or distracting that it warrants a full-fledged communications counter assault.
- School and police officials should have unified communications so as to send consistent messages. We train in our emergency preparedness programs for the use of joint information centers (JICs) in a major critical incident response. But even on lower scale incidents, it is important for school leaders to be sending a message consistent with that of public safety officials.
- Have a formal crisis communications plan and professionally train your administrators and crisis team members on communicating effectively with media and parents. Professional communications consultants and district communications staff (for those with such in-house resources) can help develop and audit crisis communications plans and train staff.
- School leaders should review their board policies, student handbooks and discipline policies to make sure they have solid legal and administrative provisions for disciplinary action to address students who make threats, or send text messages that are disruptive to the educational process. School administrators and boards should have proactive discussions about the firm, fair and consistent enforcement of these rules if and when incidents arise.
- Educate students about their role and behavioral expectations related to preventing and reporting rumors and threats of violence, as well as cell phone and text messaging use, especially during an emergency. Students need to know that responsible behavior is expected of them, that consequences will occur for inappropriate behavior, and that starting, spreading and fueling rumors are serious offenses that jeopardize school safety.
- Discuss with teachers the importance of heightened awareness and monitoring student use of cell phones and texting in classrooms and school common areas. Procedures should be in place for teachers to notify school administrators and security personnel of misuse and abuse. Administrators should be prepared to enforce disciplinary rules firmly, fairly and consistently.
- Communicate with your parents proactively and in advance about how your district will address rumors, threats and other school violence concerns. Parents and others in the school community must be told ahead of time that school officials have plans in place to respond to rumors, investigate them, administer disciplinary consequences. Parents also need to know that, when necessary, you will call police to investigate threats, make arrests and heighten security.
- Consider how your security and preparedness technology can be used in times of rumors and threats. Can your surveillance cameras be used to monitor hallways to help identify persons going in and out of restrooms where threats have been written on bathroom walls? One school reportedly used their cameras to identify students in the hallways who were using cell phones to record fights in the hallways. After dealing with the actual fight incident, administrators went back to the cameras and followed up with disciplinary action against those recording the fights, against school rules banning cell phones in school.
Historical Look at Increased School Threats, Text Messaging Violence Rumors and School Closings
National School Safety and Security Services is tracking more and more school incidents across the nation where rumors have disrupted schools and have resulted in dramatic declines in school attendance and even school closures. The issues of text messaging in particular, and cell phones in general, were credited with often creating more anxiety and panic than any actual threats or incidents that may have triggered the rumors.
“We are now dealing with ‘Generation Text’,” said Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services. “The rumors typically become greater than the issue, problem, or incident itself. Rumors fly in minutes, not hours, attendance can drop dramatically overnight and some school officials seem increasingly quick to shut down schools,” he noted.
Following the Columbine High School attack on April 20, 1999, each subsequent year has brought a heightened sensitivity to threats, plots and rumors in many schools leading up to the anniversary date. It is not uncommon to see a spike in threats, foiled plots, and rumors of violence, especially during the months of March and April.
We detail the issue of school threats in 2013-2014 with our study of more 300 violent threats to schools which found more than 1/3 of the threats delivered by social media and other electronic forms
Additional School Threat Assessment Resources
See a related story on school threats and cell phones in USA Today.
Also visit our page on Early Warning Signs of Youth Violence for related information.
For more information on this topic and our training programs on assessing and managing threats, email Ken Trump.