Officials wrestle with decision on when to disclose threats
WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — A threat scrawled on a bathroom stall decades ago might have been shrugged at, possibly ignored entirely. But it’s a different story when such a threat is found at a school like Worcester’s Norrback Avenue Elementary in 2018.
Shortly after discovering the message two weeks ago, school officials ultimately determined it was a low risk that someone would follow through on the threat. However, parents were distressed when word of it spread on social media. Some wondered why the district hadn’t told families what was going on earlier.
“It’s frustrating,” Worcester’s school safety director, Robert Pezzella, said of the difficult situation school and police officials are finding themselves in as they deal with a spate of threats — some credible, others not — made against schools across the region in recent weeks. “We’re under scrutiny all the time by many factions within the community about what we’re going to do when a threat comes in.”
Since the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Feb. 14 brought school shootings once again to the forefront of national debate, threats have been popping up nearly every day against schools in Central Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country. Some schools and police departments have investigated incidents that didn’t even involve a communicated threat, but where guns or other weapons were involved.
The trend even predates the Parkland incident, said Auburn Police Chief Andrew Sluckis Jr., whose department arrested an Auburn High student a week before that shooting for allegedly making a threat against the school online.
“I’d say in the last year there’s been a significant increase everywhere,” he said. “It’s not an issue we were dealing with 10 years ago. And it does take a lot of resources and a lot of hours to sort through the legitimacy and the nature of each threat.”
Yet Chief Sluckis and other police and school officials said it’s still a necessity that they take every one seriously, regardless of whether the threat seems legitimate on the surface. Authorities will launch an investigation based on an overheard conversation between students, a post on social media, or even a scribbling on a bathroom stall door.
“When you find the source, the things to consider are: Is there a legitimate intent? Do they have the means to carry out the threat? What is the motive behind the threat (i.e., bullying, a gripe against someone, disgruntled, etc.),” said Becker College Police Chief David Bousquet, who is also the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement.
“A lot of times (the culprit) will admit they put it out ... they knew what they were doing, they wanted to get a reaction out of people,” said Northbridge Police Chief Walter Warchol, whose force has also arrested a couple students since the Parkland shooting for making ultimately idle threats against their schools.
In other cases, the perceived threat is “in that gray area,” said Clinton School Superintendent Steven Meyer, where safety and precaution must be weighed against the right to free speech, for example.
“If someone’s posing with a gun” on social media, he said, “that doesn’t necessarily become a threat.”
Incidents like the Florida school shooting are also a reminder that sometimes a student really does have the capacity and will to attack a school, however. There were warnings before Parkland. The fallout from the incident, after which some observers blamed local and federal authorities for failing to prevent the carnage that left 17 people dead, also serves to show that police and school officials will be second-guessed if they don’t do enough to investigate a potential school shooter.
Communicating to the public about such investigations, consequently, is one of the trickiest parts of dealing with school threats, some authorities said. Especially as social media has greatly accelerated the spread of information and, in some cases, unfounded rumors about suspected threats, police and school officials have to walk a fine line between being transparent and being cautious with their sharing of information.
In the case of the recent Norrback Avenue incident, for instance, Mr. Pezzella said he became aware of the threat the morning of March 28, and after a quick investigation determined it was a low-level risk. He and local school personnel subsequently decided not to send out a public alert to families that afternoon.
As news of the threat circulated on social media later that day; however, the district sent out a message through its ConnectEd communication platform the next morning to assure parents the threat had been investigated, Mr. Pezzella said.
“Before you knew it, hundreds of people knew about it,” he said, even if they didn’t know the school’s investigation had determined the threat appeared to be unfounded. His concern, however, is more that families could view the lack of immediate information about the incident as an indication of the district’s mishandling of the threat itself — “that doesn’t mean we’re having a lapse in how we keep the schools safe,” he said.
This past week, another threat against Norrback, again written on a bathroom wall, resulted in the suspension of a student, according to Mr. Pezzella; that student is scheduled to be summoned on a charge of disrupting a school assembly, he said.
There are several reasons school and police authorities may want to keep a lid on investigations into threats. Prematurely releasing information may compromise the investigation, for example, or needlessly create fear in the public when fear might not be warranted, officials said. Sensationalizing school threats could also encourage copycats to seek their own moment of infamy, they said.
There are also times where school and police officials don’t even have a chance to get out ahead of an incident.
“I think social media presents a big challenge” in that regard, Mr. Meyer said. “Things can take on a life of their own on there, and it’s not something you’re even aware of. By the time it comes to your attention, it’s gotten so big, you have to figure out a way to respond to it.”
That was the case for the Clinton schools this past December, when a rumor of a threatened school shooting caused panic on social media. The subsequent police investigation determined the student at the center of the allegations did not actually pose a threat, but by then “there was a quarter of our high school that didn’t show up” to class out of fear, Mr. Meyer said. “It was a wake-up call.”
“We owe it to (families) to communicate as best we can, even if it’s just to say, ‘we’ve heard what you’ve heard and have connected with police,’” he said.
Chief Warchol also believes quick contact with the public is the right approach when dealing with suspected threats against a school.
“Get the information out, and make sure people realize we’re on top of this,” he said. “You don’t want the rumor mill to start circulating.”
In some cases, schools will notify families when a direct threat doesn’t even exist; Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, for instance, alerted parents several weeks ago after a school administrator found a starter pistol and knives in a student’s car. The weapons were left there by one of the student’s family members, and there was no indication the student planned to use them, but Superintendent Sheila Harrity said it was better for the school to be safe than sorry when it came to letting families know.
“You never want it to be misunderstood,” she said, adding the school’s principal afterward received calls from parents “to say thank you, and that they appreciated the information.”
The reality for police and school officials, however, is that no matter how deftly they handle the public relations part of the task, the recent proliferation of school threats remains a major burden.
“These situations create needless havoc or panic amongst communities,” Chief Bousquet said. “But the bigger issue is that these types of calls take away from the time that is needed to protect the general public from real crime. When police officers are busy responding to non-legitimate calls, that may leave law-abiding citizens vulnerable.”
Some authorities may not want to wield a heavy hand when dealing with pranksters or students with genuine psychological issues who make threats against their school. Chief Warchol, for instance, said the students accused of making threats in Northbridge recently were charged with the misdemeanor offense of disrupting a school assembly.
But several police and school officials said they feel it’s especially important to pursue intervention in cases were a student who has made a threat appears to need help.
While there are plenty of hoaxsters, the fear is that the current climate with school shootings could nudge another at-risk student to act, according to Adam Volungis, a psychology professor at Assumption College.
“School shootings aren’t contagious to people who are not already at risk,” he said. “But when they hear about (shootings), it may increase the risk for someone who has been contemplating it.”
Those potential school shooters may also make a threat to “test the water,” he added; in many mass shooting cases, there was prior evidence of such “leakage,” where the killer hinted to people around him or her an attack might be coming.
A critical defense against shootings consequently, Mr. Volungis said, is that school administrators take any troubling behavior seriously, and cultivate an environment where other students feel confident their concerns about someone will be acted upon if brought forward.
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com