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How should schools respond to threats of violence? Experts give tips on quelling anxiety and assessing risk.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for responding to such situations — it depends on what the threat is, for starters — there are common strategies used by schools.

Cheltenham High is one of numerous area schools around the Philadelphia region that have reported threats of violence in recent weeks.
Cheltenham High is one of numerous area schools around the Philadelphia region that have reported threats of violence in recent weeks.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Threats against schools across the region have become prevalent in recent weeks: from messages discovered on bathroom stalls to posts circulating on social media warning of violence.

The episodes have spurred lockdowns, early dismissals, and arrests — and anxiety, particularly in the wake of the Oxford, Mich., shootings. When Philly-area schools informed parents last week of threats spreading nationwide on the social media platform TikTok, some chose to keep their children home from school, though administrators said they didn’t believe the posts were aimed at their communities.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for responding to such situations — it depends on what the threat is, for starters — there are common strategies used by schools. And experts say families can manage worries around school shooting danger by examining the facts.

How should schools respond to threats?

When a school learns of a possible threat, it has to determine if the student who made it actually presents a danger. That gets particularly complicated in the case of social media posts that originate outside the community.

“Kids make threats and engage in threatening behavior frequently. But most kids who make a threat don’t pose a threat,” said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee. To evaluate, she said, schools should have good threat assessment practices in place.

In Pennsylvania, all school districts were required this year to form threat assessment teams, which must include people with expertise in school health; counseling, school psychology or social work; special education; school administration; and safety and security. Schools can also choose to include law enforcement on the teams.

The model is largely based on Secret Service research and recommendations, said Terri Erbacher, a school psychologist who served on the Pennsylvania Commission for Crime and Delinquency’s committee that helped develop threat assessment guidelines and who trains schools in the practice.

The process is “about intervening,” and identifying “what are the stressors, what are the other things going on” in a student’s life, “so we can offer those supports and services,” Erbacher said.

If a student says something out of momentary anger — like “Leave me alone, I’m going to kill you” — but later apologizes and clarifies that they weren’t intending to hurt anyone, and if others who are interviewed confirm that interpretation, the situation could be resolved there, Erbacher said, possibly with adding services for a student.

But for other threats that appear more substantive — if an intent to harm can’t be ruled out — “that’s where we take extreme precautions,” she said. Under Pennsylvania’s model guidelines, a threat to kill, rape, or cause very serious injury with a weapon is considered “very serious,” warranting a safety evaluation and law enforcement involvement.

“I always tell districts, if you’re unsure, err on the side of caution,” Erbacher said, noting that schools also have the right to check backpacks or lockers if they have “reasonable suspicion” a student poses a threat.

What are the risks of threat assessment?

But some worry that when schools turn too heavily to law enforcement, they bring more children into the criminal justice system unnecessarily.

And if students get referred for threat assessment “based on how someone dresses, implicit bias, the notion to see certain kids as potentially more violent than others,” not only are those children unfairly labeled as threats, but schools may lose the trust of students and be less likely to get useful tips, said Harold Jordan, national educational equity coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Jordan, who also served on the state’s committee developing the threat assessment guidelines, said he was concerned about a lack of “guardrails” around the process — enabling schools to invoke threat assessment for allegations that may be unfounded, and creating records about students.

While Jordan said schools should investigate serious threats — “it is legitimate when an explicit, violent threat to a school community is made to consider things like a kid’s access to guns” — he felt threat assessment was “being sold as a magic elixir. This is the solution — in a context in which there isn’t effective public policy regarding guns.”

Schools should have “plenty of adults who are communicating very well and trusted by students,” Jordan said, though he noted that “none of these things are foolproof.”

“You cannot predict who’s going to be a school shooter,” he said.

What are warning signs friends and parents can look for?

While experts say there is no profile of a school shooter, there are some signs that should signal concern, including a sudden change in behavior. “If a kid starts talking about death, or violence, or guns” and “seems obsessed with a school shooting … somebody needs to be checking in with that kid,” said Crepeau-Hobson. Some incidents have been precipitated by a grievance, like a breakup or a loss.

For parents, “sometimes it’s scary to ask those questions. But if kids know we’re available and willing to listen and be there for them, it can make a huge difference,” Crepeau-Hobson said. Many children who make threats “are actually struggling with things in themselves,” including anxiety and depression.

And children may be in a better position to witness this behavior than adults. “Kids tell other kids what they’re planning to do. Often they tell more than one person,” Erbacher said. Parents should encourage their children to report concerning remarks or behavior by a classmate.

“Kids need to not think it’s snitching, or ‘Is it really going to happen?’” she said. “Just report it, and let a full inquiry or assessment happen through the school.” Pennsylvania has an anonymous reporting system, too, called Safe2Say.

Regardless of whether threats have been made, parents and communities should prioritize gun safety, said Aparna Kumar, an assistant professor at Jefferson College of Nursing who works with children and families with mental health issues.

“Guns need to be safely stored in a place children have no way of getting to,” Kumar said. She sometimes talks to parents who say that’s the case, but follows up to ask how they’re sure.

“It’s one of those issues we don’t ask each other. We don’t go to people’s houses and say, ‘Do you have a gun here?’”

When there’s a threat, how do you manage kids’ and parents’ anxiety?

Parents should remember that school shootings are relatively rare, experts said.

“Your automatic thought is there will be one. In reality, if you look at the evidence, it’s not likely to happen,” Kumar said, noting that how parents manage their emotions is important because “whatever we model … that’s what kids are going to do.”

She suggested using clear, direct language — without getting overly detailed — acknowledging to children that school shootings do happen, but are unlikely. And letting children know that “our role is to keep you safe, the school’s role is to keep you safe.”

Erbacher said that because Pennsylvania now has requirements in place for threat assessment, she’s more confident in how schools respond to threats.

“I would never tell a parent to send their child in if they’re not comfortable,” she said. But “as a school person, I trust it.”

If parents aren’t satisfied with a school’s explanation to the community, they can follow up and ask specifically how it was that a threat was determined to not be credible, or what steps are in place to keep children safe, Crepeau-Hobson said.

She said that it was important that schools prioritize not just physical safety, but “psychological safety.”

“If we start at the universal level, and really look at — what’s good for everybody that we can do building-wide, in terms of helping people feel safe and secure?” Crepeau-Hobson said, adding: “That’s tough when you’re in a pandemic with no expiration date.”