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School Threats, School Violence Rumors and School Threat Assessment
One of the most lasting lessons and legacies of the 1999 attack on Columbine High School, and subsequent school shootings from that time to the present, is that school and public safety officials must treat threats seriously and 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 considered to begin assessing school threats could include:
- 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 as accessible as a few strokes on a keyboard to search 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 be tempted 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, not emotional decisions.
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 the threats by school officials working cooperatively with law enforcement and other public safety officials.
Following school emergency guidelines for managing bomb threats and other threats is critical for reducing the risks of school officials making emotional decisions. 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, exercised at a minimum through tabletop exercises, and staff trained accordingly.
In addition to school emergency/crisis plans, schools should 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 text messaging, schools do not have the luxury of trying to devise a way to get their communications out when the incident occurs. School leaders should discuss these types of situations and have a crisis communications plan in place well ahead of an actual incident.
Increased School Threats, Text Messaging Violence Rumors and School Closings
Following the Columbine High School attack on April 20, 1999, each subsequent year there has been a heightened sensitivity to threats, plots and rumors in many schools leading up to the anniversary date each year. It is not uncommon to see a spike in threats, foiled plots, and rumors of violence especially during the months of March and April. The Virginia Tech attack on April 16, 2007, brought some similar threats, campus closings and heightened anxiety around its first year anniversary in April of 2008.
The 2007-08 school year saw an unusual number of K-12 school threats which were accelerated by text message rumors. A number of these incidents resulted in the shutting down of schools by school officials, a practice which is not highly recommended as a first and/only step by school safety experts when the threats are very vague.
A sample of 28 incidences of school threat rumors, vague threats, heightened security due to threats and school closings reported during the 2007-08 year include:
- May 2, 2008: Daytona Beach, FL
More than two-thirds of the student population of a high school were absent due to rumors of Columbine-like violence that was rumored to occur on May 2nd. The rumors accelerated due to a threat scribbled on a restroom wall on April 21st. Extra police officers were on-hand. Rumors reportedly had spread throughout the area with several other schools reporting high absenteeism reportedly from 36% to 46%.
- April 29, 2008: Guthrie, OK
Four additional police officers were hired, in addition to one officer already assigned to the school, at a high school after a threat was found on a bathroom wall threatening to kill black students and blow up the school.
- April 29, 2008: Alton, IL
School officials reduced access to the high school, refused to allow students to carry book bags and large purses, stationed additional deputies at the school, required students to wear IDs, prohibited students from being in the hallways during class time without an escort, sent automated messages to parents and took other measures to heighten security after an unspecified written threat was found at the school.
- April 25, 2008: Pinetops, NC
A metal detector and 15 deputies greeted students who arrived to their high school after the school's principal contacted the sheriff's department the day before following student reports of rumors that someone was going to bring a gun to school the next day.
- April 21, 2008: Columbia, TN
Massive absences took place at several Maury County Schools after rumors spread via text message over the weekend of a gang shooting following the funeral of two individuals associated with a Columbia gang who had been shot to death. School officials reportedly said that nearly 70% of students were absent from one high school. They said that 551 and 459 students were absent from another high school and another middle school, respectively.
- April 21, 2008: Winchester, KY
Parents reportedly flocked to a high school after a student sent a text message to a parent that students were bringing guns and knives to school, which school officials subsequently said was erroneous. The rumors may have been stemmed from a weekend fight involving students and non-students. Numerous students reportedly went home early.
- April 21, 2008: Clark County, WA
Rumors spread by text messaging after what authorities called an "ambiguous threat" was found on a bathroom wall in a high school. About 10 callers that had received the text message notified police on 4/20/08 of a rumored threat of a shooting to occur at the high school at 11:00am on 4/21, but police and school officials said this rumored information was not what was indicated in the bathroom wall threat, the exact details of which they would not disclose.
- April 18, 2008: McMinnville, TN
More than one-third of a county middle school's student body stayed home or left early after threatening graffiti was found on a boys' bathroom wall the day before and information started spreading by cell phones and text messaging.
- April 17, 2008: Calumet City, IL
An entire suburban Chicago school district with five elementary schools and one middle school was shut down after a threat was found on a restroom wall. Police determined the threat to not be credible. Multiple other schools in the Chicago area reportedly had also been closed or evacuated due to threats.
- April 16, 2008: Lodi, CA
Approximately 450 of a high school's nearly 2,000 students did not come to school after text messaged rumors of a gang shooting to occur at the school spread through cell phones the day before.
- April 14 2008: Chicago, IL
Four suburban Chicago high schools and elementary schools were closed, along with St. Xavier University, after a threat was received at St. Xavier University. Nothing occurred.
- April 7, 2008: Ft. Wayne, IN
Police and security personnel were a part of heightened security at three Ft. Wayne schools following rumors, text messages and other rumors of a potential shooting following gang murder and other violence in the community over the Spring break when school was closed.
- March 26, 2008: Norman, OK
Security was heightened at a middle school after staff found a threatening message on a restroom wall before spring break indicating a shooting would occur 6th period on March 26th. An additional officer was assigned to the campus
- March 25, 2008: Comstock, MI
Students at a high school were dismissed early after a note that threatened gun violence was found in a restroom around 8:45am. The school was put on a lockdown as police converged on the school. Students were released before 1:00pm and all after-school activities were cancelled. At least one parent reported that she waited in the parking lot while her son was text messaging her. Metal detectors were brought in and students were checked for weapons. No weapons were found.
- March 20, 2008: Ackley, IA
A message on a locker room wall claiming that a gun would be brought to school and students would be shot resulted in all but one entrances being locked and a metal detector put into operation at a high school.
- March 20, 2008: Temecula, CA
A message scrawled on a restroom wall that threatened someone bringing a gun to school resulted in heightened police presence and about 25 more absences than normal at a middle school.
- March 19, 2008: Suwanee, GA
A 16-year-old male high school student was charged in connection with rampant text messaged rumored threats that spread through a high school campus suggesting there was going to be a shooting. Nothing happened, but about 40% of the students were absent from the school. Rumors also spread through two other schools.
- January 31, 2008: St. Charles, IL
About 50 percent of a high school's students were absent after a threat had been scrawled on the wall of a school restroom earlier in the week. School officials sent out mass parent notifications the day before but apparently all parents did not receive the message about the threat due to "human error" with the message system, according to school officials.
School officials cancelled "Spirit Week" and a winter homecoming dance after fears of violence following a series of fights. The school also rescheduled basketball games after rumors of gang violence.
2007: Detroit, MI
An elementary-middle school was evacuated after receiving multiple threats. Several threatening phone calls were made to the school beginning around 10:30am. Police were called after the third call. Students reportedly had to wait outside in the cold while the building was being searched.
2007: Lakeland, FL
Rumors of a shooting caused school officials to close a high school one day early before the beginning of winter break. All extracurricular activities and classes were cancelled.
November 7, 2007: Medina County, OH
Cloverleaf High School was closed for the day after school officials found two graffiti threats on two bathroom walls. Police dogs searched the school and the school was monitored by law enforcement.
October 26, 2007: Portsmouth, VA
A high school was locked down for over an hour following a call made to police that claimed there was a person with a gun inside the school. No such person was ever located.
October 5, 2007: Ashville, NC
School officials had 20 police and metal detectors at a rival football game due to concerns of potential gang activity following a gang-related shooting which seriously injured a 12-year-old earlier in the week in the community.
September 28, 2007: Munster, IN
Classes for the following Monday were shut down by school officials at a Catholic school due to potential safety concerns associated with a funeral of a gang member being held at the funeral home next to the school.
September 25, 2007: Canton, PA
Schools were shut down for the remainder of the week due to threats made by what the superintendent described as five males. Two males, ages 15 and 16, were arrested as of this report and the investigation was ongoing.
September 19, 2007: Emerson, NJ
Twelve northern New Jersey schools closed after a letter threatening to blow up the schools at 11:30am was received. Police and dogs searched over 60 schools.
September 7, 2007: Trenton, NJ
Two emailed bomb threats sent to the district's central office caused school officials to evacuate all 32 of its school sites, some for up to an hour.
There were also at least 12 foiled plots during the 2007-08 school year that were clearly very serious. These include:
- April 24, 2008: Lakewood, OH
A 33-year-old suburban Cleveland male was arrested and subsequently charged with conspiracy to commit murder based upon an alleged plot with a 16-year-old male high school freshman from the South Bend, Indiana, area to do "Columbine-style" attacks at his school and at another unidentified school at the same time.. The 16-year-old was arrested earlier in the week after a school officer found writings on the Internet about this plot while investigating another unrelated threat.
- April 23, 2008: Louisville, KY
Two middle school students, ages 13 and 14, and a 19-year-old male non-student, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder in connection with a plot to kill another 13-year-old middle school student. Police reported the plot had been underway since March and was to be carried out the following weekend. The investigation began after a tip was made to the school. The principal sent home letters to parents about the incident.
- April 20, 2008: Chesterfield, SC
An 18-year-old male high school senior was arrested in connection with a plot to conduct a bomb attack on his school. The male reportedly had detailed his plans, which included his suicide, in a journal that included maps of the school. Parents called the police when 10 pounds of ammonium nitrate was delivered to their home and they found their son's journal.
- April 3, 2008: Cleveland, OH
Police responded to a charter school for a "hit list" that included plans to blow up the school, according to reports. While police were at the school, security officers told them they saw a student hide a gun near the school. Police went to a nearby house and found a loaded handgun.
A group of up to nine male and female third graders reportedly were involved in planning to kill their teacher. Individuals involved brought broken steak knives, handcuffs and other items to the school. Police reported that the plot contained specific roles were certain participants. No one was injured.
A 22-year-old male was charged and a 17-year-old male high school student admitted for mental health evaluation in connection with what police described as a "military-style plot" to attack the student's high school to kill students and teachers. Surveillance reportedly had been done to identify escape routes.
A 14-year-old male was arrested and later adjudicated for a Columbine-style plot to shoot individuals at his middle school.
October 29, 2007: Peachtree City, GA
A 16-year-old female high school student, and a 15-year-old former student who was home-schooled at the time, were arrested in connection with threats posted on MySpace.com which indicated they wanted to shoot people at the school.
October 26, 2007: Tulsa, OK
Police arrested an adult male who told a suicide counseling that he wanted to shoot up a high school about 20 minutes or so outside of Tulsa. The male was taken into custody for a mental exam.
October 15, 2007: Cleveland, OH
A 13-year-old female K-8 school student was arrested after a school security officer confiscated a five-page note that listed teachers and a student the female wanted to shoot. Police found a gun at the house of an aunt and uncle where the girl lives. The girl claimed to be the girlfriend of the male who shot two teachers and two students, and then killed himself, at a Cleveland school the week before this incident.
October 10, 2007:
Plymouth Meeting, PA
A 14-year-old male was arrested for planning a Columbine-like attack and stockpiling a mass of weapons. Police reportedly found a 9mm semi-auto firearm, .22-caliber handgun, .22-caliber rifle, .32 caliber handgun, bomb-making instructions, videos of the Columbine attack, and other items. Police subsequently arrested the boy's 46-year-old mother for buying some of the weapons for her 14-year-old. A student and his father reportedly notified police when they learned of the plan.
August 4, 2007:
Four 15-year-old males and one 13-year-old male were arrested and charged in connection with an alleged plot to threaten their high school with a bomb when classes started in the fall. The plot was discovered when police arrested the five youths after a break-in at their high school where they allegedly stole chemicals such as ammonium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, chemicals reportedly cited in publications on how to build bombs.
incidents above illustrate both the need for threat assessment protocols and
caution to manage rumors, as well as the importance of treating threats
seriously as there are legitimate foiled plots in addition to the many
School Safety Recommendations for Managing Threats, School Rumors and Fear
Trump says there are three critical communications components to school officials effectively countering fast moving rumors and school violence threats. He says that school communications must be:
1) 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;
2) Timely - Released in a timely manner at the on-set of the rumors with periodic updates as necessary and appropriate; and
3) Redundant in dissemination - Educators and safety officials must have redundancy in communication channels and mechanisms used to get out their accurate information. Not all parents and community members get their information from the same sole 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 related rapid spread of fear include:
6) School leaders should review their board policies, student handbooks and related discipline policies to make sure they have solid legal and administrative provisions for disciplinary action related to students who make threats, to address text messaging and cell phone use which is disruptive to the educational process, and related measures. School administrators and boards should have proactive discussions about the firm, fair and consistent enforcement of these rules if and when incidents arise.
7) Educate students about their roles 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. This education needs to occur prior to actual incidences and, of course, must be reinforced early on if and when incidents do occur.
8) Discuss with teachers the importance of their heightened awareness and supervision to monitor against student use of cell phones and text messaging in classrooms and school common areas. Heightened attention to this is particularly important during times of threats, rumors and related security incidents. Procedures should be in place for teachers to notify school administrators and security personnel of such misuse and abuse, and administrators should be prepared to fulfill firm, fair and consistent enforcement of related disciplinary rules.
9) 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 prepared ahead of time to know that school officials have plans in place to respond to rumors, processes to investigate them, procedures to administer disciplinary consequences, and when necessary steps to engage the support of their public safety partners such as police and other support services in criminal investigations and heightened security efforts.
10) 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 phone to video record fights in the hallways. The administrators, after dealing with the actual fight incident, went back to the cameras and followed up with disciplinary action against those recording the fight against school rules of using cell phones in school. Other applications of existing technology may also be helpful based upon the particular circumstances of the issue at hand.
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. Therefore, predictability of youth behavior is even more difficult than that of adults.
In reviewing high-profile school shootings, we have made a number of observations including that:
- 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, but the pieces rarely are put together to get the whole picture until after a crisis occurs.
- The majority of high-profile school violence offenses do not occur spontaneously. To the contrary, most involved some type of prior planning. Additionally, 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
National School Safety and Security Services' staff have over 25 years of experience in addressing student and adult threats in school settings and we spend a period of time addressing 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 tells others 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 therefore 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 credibility of threat has focused 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 credibility is often given. 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 foreign dignitaries or providing government protection details in that, unlike most law enforcement or military-type threat assessments, in schools we are dealing with kids. The key is striking a balance between avoiding the "kids will be kids" mentality of ignoring threats on one end of the continuum, and having teams of secret agents with dark glasses and trench coats following kids around on the other end of the continuum of responses. Schools are unique and there are school-specific recommendations for answering these and related questions.
School Psychological Perspective on School Closing Due to Threats and Rumors
Dr. Scott Poland, Associate 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 and/or less supervised when at home during the workday than if they were in school. He has also written about the importance of continuity of the educational process for maintaining "normalcy" for children.
Dr. Poland was quoted in an April 2008 Chicago Tribune story about the closing of schools in the Chicago area as saying that schools should close as a last resort. The Tribune reported that Dr. Poland, "...advocated instead increased security, meetings to put students on alert and ongoing threat assessments."
Dr. Poland was quoted as saying: "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 include:
"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.
No one can provide a definite answer as to whether or not to close school because of threats of violence. Each school situation will be unique but it is important to remember that the purpose of most threats is disruption. Many schools have developed careful policies and procedures after years of bomb threats that have minimized lost academic time.
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 along way to alleviate both student and parent concerns about school safety."
We respect Dr. Poland's wealth of expertise and knowledge in the school
psychology field and school violence. His advice reinforces the importance
of schools having threat assessment protocols in place and having advance
discussions among school and public safety officials as to how they will respond
if they face threats and rumors of school violence.
Additional School Threat Assessment Resources
Check out Ken Trump's October 2001 article in the American Association of School Administrator's The School Administrator magazine on Assessing and Managing Student Threats.
See a 2008 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, school safety training and emergency preparedness services, email Ken Trump.