Just last week, two 14-year-old boys were charged in separate cases after police say they made threats aimed at Maine high schools.

In one case, a threatening note left in a bathroom caused Nokomis Regional High School to shut down early for the day. In the other, the boy who allegedly made a verbal threat against Hall-Dale High School was located and taken into custody the night before a school day.

Schools are facing these sort of threats more and more in recent years. However, with much of the attention regarding school safety focused on tragic but rare shootings, researchers say schools may be missing something.

According to a report from the Educator’s School Safety Network, there were 23 school shootings in the 2018-19 school year; shots were fired in an additional 17 cases. One Harvard researcher put the chances of any one student being killed by gunfire on any one day at 1 in 614 million.

In the same time period, there were more than 3,000 reported threats of violence at schools nationwide. That’s down slightly from the prior year but up nearly 50 percent since the 2016-17 school year.

The vast majority of threats are vague. They mostly come from male students and are mostly made through social media.

Once a threat is made, researchers say, officials don’t often have the tools to tell whether they are empty and can be ignored, or whether they are serious enough to warrant a disruption of the school day.

“School administrators and law enforcement officials continue to find themselves in the untenable position of having to make critical decisions about the validity of threats with little to no threat assessment protocols, few established best practices, outdated procedures, and typically, a complete lack of education-based school safety training,” the ESSN report states.

Improving threat assessment tools is necessary to better handle threats when they come in. However, steps should be taken, too, to identify issues within the student population before a threat is made.

Of course, every adult in the school system should be looking out for students who are vulnerable, marginalized or spiraling downward. Increasingly, schools are turning to school resource officers to not only handle problems as they arise but to deter them as well — to be mediators, counselors, role models and mentors.

Ultimately, however, school resource officers are law enforcement. They are trained far more heavily in responding to an active shooter than dealing with the mental health and behaviors of children and teenagers.

School resource officers can be a valuable asset, but they cannot replace guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists. Unfortunately, students are far more likely to have access to a resource officer than any of those other professionals.

Counselors, social workers and the like give students someone to go to before they fall into crisis. They each are another set of trained eyes watching for problems as they bubble up in the hallways and classrooms.

In the same vein, schools should focus as much on improving the culture and climate in the building as they do trying to detect the next threat or incident. Students need a calm, comforting place to learn, not what the ESNN report calls a “prison-like, surveillance-based environment.”

Threats are on the rise. They take up time and resources, raise anxiety, and get in the way of learning. Schools need to be ready — and they need to be ready in the right way.

 

 


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