Study shows rapid escalation of threats of violence in schools
Schools are facing a new wave of violent threats sent through social media and other electronic media, according to a study
Facebook bomb threats. School shooting threats sent through international proxy servers. A death threat scrawled on a bathroom wall sparked text message buzzes throughout the school community. Parents and media rush to the door of his school. What should a principal and a superintendent do?
A nationwide epidemic of violent threats of guilt is creating fear, anxiety and frustration among educators, children and parents. Although the vast majority of these threats are anonymous and turn out to be fake, they should be investigated and taken seriously. Hundreds of schools are wasting class time, police are wasting resources, children are scared, and parents are angry and alarmed.
“Threats in schools are a rapidly growing problem. They're sending fear and panic into the community," said Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, who led a new study of school threats across the country.
We analyzed 812 school threats nationwide from August 1 through December 31, 2014, the first half of this school year. According to available data, threats have increased by 158% since last year, when we conducted the first such survey. This rapid escalation of school threats requires urgent attention.
Click here to learn morefrom our groundbreaking research on school threats.
Learn more about ourNew STAT: School Threat Assessment Training Workshop: School Threat Assessment and Management
Ken shares insights from our study on the rapidly increasing threat of school violence and what school leaders can do to prevent and manage it:
Guilt Threats, School Violence Rumors, and Guilt Threats Rating
One of the enduring lessons and legacies of the 1999 Columbine High School attack and subsequent school shootings is that school and public safety authorities must take threats seriously. You must have protocols in place to assess and manage threats to school security.
School threat assessment is a gray area, and school administrators often find themselves walking a tightrope. Nine out of ten threats may be unfounded, but no school administrator wants to be number 10.
Three FAQs to start assessing school threats:
- What is the motivation of the threat creator and the credibility of the threat?
- Could the threat creator have information on how to execute the threat (e.g. information on how to make bombs or homemade weapons)?
- Could the threat creator have access to the tools and ability to run the threat?
Today we know that the answers to questions two and three can easily be yes. Information on how many threats are carried out is easy to find on the Internet. The tools to execute the threat might be as close as your local hardware store, discount store, or other home goods store.
Therefore, educators and security officers often focus on the first question: What is the motivation of the threat creator and the credibility of the threat? Unfortunately, this requires evaluation of human behavior and proper judgment, which is no easy task for even the most seasoned criminologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other student of human behavior.
The importance of responding to threats cognitively, not emotionally
It's very understandable that school officials make emotional decisions when faced with a threat to your children's safety. However, this is when cognitive and analytical decision-making needs to take over.
While school administrators may be emotionally tempted to quickly evacuate a school or close schools, this may not be the most appropriate course of action, especially when the credibility of the threat is questioned. While we do not believe schools need "analysis paralysis" to guide their decision-making process, we believe threat assessment protocols should be in place for collaborative threat assessment by school officials working with schools, law enforcement, and other public safety officials.
It is vital that school staff follow emergency guidelines for handling bombs and other threats. Emergency policies help school leaders make cognitive decisions that focus on the facts of the actual threat. These plans should be developed in a collaborative process with first responders and community partners. You need to train the team thoroughly and at least do tabletop drills.
Schools must also develop separate crisis communication plans to provide accurate information to parents, the media and the wider community in a timely manner when rumors and threats surface. Given the viral nature of social media and text messaging, schools don't have the luxury of strategizing during a crisis. School leaders need to discuss these types of situations and have a crisis communication plan in place well in advance of an actual incident.
School Threat Assessment: Predicting Student and Adolescent Behavior
The good news is that school and law enforcement 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 say with 100% certainty. The behavior of the boys is even more difficult to predict. Adolescent behavior is inherently experimental and fickle.
In reviewing high-profile school shootings, we made several observations:
- Adults tend to spot radical and dramatic changes in young people's behavior. However, adults continue to have difficulty detecting small, incremental behavioral changes in young people.
- Early intervention to prevent violent incidents is even more complicated because so many people have information about a child. The pieces rarely come together into a complete picture until a crisis strikes.
- Most school shootings and other forms of violence do not happen spontaneously. Most involve some form of advance planning. They usually result from the culmination of a series of disruptive events experienced by the offender. The resulting violence often reflects an "end of the road" action on the part of the perpetrator.
Basic principles of school threat analysis and threat management
the team inNational School Safety and Protection Serviceshas over 30 years of experience dealing with threats to students and adults in the school environment. We deal with these questions in detail in ourTraining programs in school safety, protection and crisis preparedness.
What should I do if I find a "blacklist" in a student's possession? How should we deal with the boy who says he plans to kill other students and staff? How should we handle a situation where a child says to another student or staff member, "I'll kill you"?
While every school district and school should have their own threat assessment teams and school threat protocols, some basic guiding principles include:
- Treat all threats seriously.
- Investigate the incident quickly and efficiently.
- Leverage external support staff and resources as part of a multidisciplinary threat assessment team to assess threats.
- Take appropriate disciplinary and criminal action.
- Document threats and actions taken.
- If necessary, enhance security measures to ensure the safety of all students, staff and facilities.
It is important that school staff establish a threat assessment protocol to ensure consistency and rigor in assessing and responding to student and adult threats. We believe that threat assessment involves analyzing the behavioral process of the person issuing the threat, rather than using a "profiling" checklist of specific characteristics as criteria.
In each threat case, different questions should be asked that focus on motivation, context, and other threat factors. We recommend that educators know the following:
- What Questions Should Witnesses Ask? the victims? suspicious?
- Who should participate in the evaluation process?
- What questions should be asked in the evaluation process?
- Which faculty and staff are best placed to identify 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 threat or warning. The presence of a threat does not guarantee violence, and the absence of a threat does not guarantee nothing will happen.
In general, the general rule of thumb when assessing the credibility of a threat is to focus on the details and specifics of the threat and actions taken to plan and execute the threat. The more detailed and specific the threat is, the more credible it can be. The more planning evidence (destination lists, maps, documented specific times and places, etc.) the threat.
Evaluating threats in schools, for example, differs from investigating threats against the President. Unlike most military or police threat assessments, we deal with children in schools. The key is finding a balance between the “kids will be kids” mentality of ignoring threats, or teams of secret agents in sunglasses and trench coats shadowing the kids. Schools are unique and there are specific recommendations for each school to answer these and similar questions.
The school psychological perspective on school closures due to threats and rumours
Scott Poland, MD, a professor at Nova University's Center for Psychological Studies and an internationally recognized expert on school violence and school psychology, expressed concern about the rapid closure of schools amid vague threats and rumours. Doctor Poland points out that it is common knowledge that primary and secondary school students are often unsupervised or less supervised during the working day than when they are at school. He also wrote about the importance of continuity in the educational process to keep children "normal".
Doctor Polonia told the Chicago Tribune in April 2008 that schools should close as a last resort.
He said: "We must not close schools every time there is a threat of violence. In fact, in most cases, say, a bomb threat or something, you take care of the problem, but then you go back to the management of the school."
Additional thoughts from Dr. Polonia for the National School Safety and Protection Services:
“We must remember that many threats of violence at school are made with the intention of disrupting education. The number of threats in schools usually spikes in the spring due to awareness of the Columbine Jubilee and other high-profile tragedies. Students who have been bullied or harassed at school and who have had an unsuccessful school year can be particularly frustrated and angry in the spring.
“School safety is an 'inside job' and it is important that all students are involved in their own safety through classroom discussions and student participation in school safety task forces. There is also no substitute for getting to know the students and getting to know them well. School officials are encouraged to develop positive relationships with all students, and in the event of a threat, increasing the visibility of school officials and police at the school will go a long way in allaying student and parent concerns about school safety.
The advice of Dr. Polonia underscores the importance of schools having threat assessment logs and advanced discussions between the school and public safety officials on how to respond when confronted with threats and rumors of school violence.
How school leaders can communicate about school safety in a world on digital steroids
"Social media, which is spreading rumors like wildfire, needs to be addressed by school officials who have a robust crisis communications plan in place to deal with growing rumors of school safety issues," said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Services. Trump says there are three critical communication components to combating quick rumors and threats of school violence:
- Accuracy – As pressure mounts on school officials to quickly release information in times of crisis or high excitement, accuracy is the most important factor. All information published by school officials must be correct to the best of their knowledge and belief at the time of publication.
- Timely – Disclosure of information in a timely manner when rumors begin, with regular updates where necessary and appropriate
- Redundant Distribution: Educators and safety officials must send the same information through all school channels, including parental alert systems, social media, text messages, the school website, letters sent home, and the media. Not all parents and community members get their information from the same source. See Recommendation #3 below for specific examples.
Recommendations to help schools and security agencies deal with vague threats, text message rumors of school violence and the rapid spread of fear include:
- Assume that at some point in your school you will have an issue that will rage like wildfire. Determine in advance what strategies you will use to counteract this.
- Redundancy in communication: website, direct communication with students and staff, bulk notifications to parents, go-home letters, etc.
- Discuss some possible scenarios with district and facility managers and crisis teams to assess where the threshold will be for expediting your communications. If you're going full blast with all the rumors, you might need two full-time employees to fight rumors in an average high school. Try to sense when a situation might become so upsetting or disturbing that it warrants an all-out communication counterattack.
- School officials and law enforcement must have unified communications to send consistent messages. We train in our emergency preparedness programs to use Joint Information Centers (JIC) in response to major critical incidents. But even with minor incidents, it's important that school leaders send a message that's consistent with that of public safety officials.
- Have a formal crisis communication plan in place and professionally train your administrators and crisis team members on how to communicate effectively with the media and parents. Professional communications consultants and the district communications team (for those with such internal resources) can help develop and review crisis communications plans and train staff.
- Principals should review board policies, student handbooks, and disciplinary policies to ensure they have strong legal and administrative disciplinary provisions in place to target students who make threats or send disruptive text messages. Administrators and school boards should have proactive discussions about strict, fair, and consistent enforcement of these rules should incidents arise.
- Educate students on their role and behavioral expectations in preventing and reporting rumors and threats of violence, and the use of cell phones and texting, particularly in emergencies. Students should know that responsible behavior is expected of them, that inappropriate behavior will have consequences, and that fomenting, spreading, and rumor-mongering are serious crimes that endanger the safety of the school.
- Discuss with teachers the importance of raising awareness and monitoring student cell phone and texting usage in classrooms and public areas of the school. Procedures should be in place for teachers to report abuse and abuse to school administrators and security personnel. Administrators must be prepared to enforce disciplinary rules in a strict, fair and consistent manner.
- Communicate proactively and early with your parents about how your district will address rumours, threats and other issues of school violence. , draw disciplinary consequences. Parents should also know that if necessary, she will call the police to investigate threats, make arrests and increase security.
- Consider how your security and preparedness technology can be used in times of rumors and threats. Can your security cameras be used to monitor hallways to identify people entering and exiting bathrooms when threats are written on the bathroom walls? A school allegedly used its cameras to identify students in the hallways who used cellphones to record hallway brawls. against school rules that ban cell phones in school.
Historical overview of increasing school threats, text violence rumors and school closures
The National School Safety and Security Services are increasingly following school incidents across the country where rumors have disrupted schools and led to dramatic falls in school attendance and even school closures. In particular, it has been attributed to issues with text messaging and cell phones in general, which often prompted more fear and panic than any actual threat or incident that might have sparked the rumours.
"Now we're looking at 'text generation,'" said Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services. "Rumours often get bigger than the issue, problem, or incident itself. Rumors spread in minutes, not hours, attendance can drop dramatically overnight, and some school officials appear to be closing schools at an accelerating rate."
After the attack on Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, each subsequent year has brought heightened sensitivity to threats, conspiracies, and rumors in many schools leading up to the anniversary. It is not uncommon for threats, foiled plans and rumors of violence to increase, particularly during the months of March and April.
We dwell in detail on the topic of school threats 2013-2014Our study of more than 300 violent threats in schools found that more than 1/3 of the threats are transmitted through social media and other electronic forms
Additional resources on threat assessment in schools
For a related story, seeSchool and Cell Phone Threatstoday in the US.
Also visit our page belowEarly warning signs of youth violencefor related information.
For more information on this topic and our threat analysis and management training programs, please email usKen Trump.