Less than a month after the Oxford High School mass shooting in Michigan, school leaders, community members and parents are still grappling with how to respond to an increasing number of violent threats.
The shooting itself raised questions of how it could happen after multiple red flags surfaced regarding the perpetrator in the days before the attack.
“[T]hese incidents remained at the guidance counselor level and were never elevated to the principal or assistant principal’s office,” wrote Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne in a letter to the community. He added: “While we understand this decision has caused anger, confusion and prompted understandable questioning, the counselors made a judgment based on their professional training and clinical experience and did not have all the facts we now know.”
People may be surprised that threats are not uncommon among children and teens, said John Lody, director of diagnostic and prevention services at Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, which serves about 81,000 students.
Threats on the rise
Threats of violence against schools are on the rise — 164 were made with evidence of intent to be carried out in 2021 vs. 112 in 2020, according to data from Statista. As of Dec. 15, there had been 32 school shootings with injuries or death this year. In Iowa’s Quad Cities, KWQC reported four different schools received threats in the week after the Oxford shooting, which killed four students and injured seven more.
“This makes it even more important that we have the proper training and protocols in place to drive a proper evaluation,” Lody said. “Because threats are not uncommon, teams must work together both in school and with outside partners, such as law enforcement and community mental health providers, to address more significant threats of violence.”
The shooting in Michigan is not the first time a student who has undergone a threat evaluation has returned to school and committed a shooting, according to Chris Dorn, a senior analyst at Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety organization. The 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting in Colorado, in which the perpetrator lied during the threat assessment process and was deemed not a threat, is one example.
“The biggest challenge is that we must always realize that, despite a school’s best efforts to prevent a violent event, a terrible situation could happen,” Dorn said.
Since the 1999 Columbine shooting, also in Colorado, schools have increasingly improved safety and implemented protocols to assess threats and protect students. Every high-profile shooting since then bumps the issue to the forefront of people’s minds, but the conversation inevitably fades until another is reported.
“The key is to keep school safety front-of-mind when there is not a tragedy in the headlines. When people let their guard down, warning signs get missed and fall through the cracks,” said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a national consulting firm. “Decades after Columbine, there are still many school and community leaders who believe that it can’t happen here. Plus, we also have a roller coaster of public awareness, policy, and funding for school safety.”
The responsibility for school safety relies on students, school staff, parents, and law enforcement all working together. Lody adds an important step in responding to threats of targeted violence is educating everyone on how to report concerning behavior and threats to trusted adults at school who know how to take immediate action.
“Some of the most meaningful preparedness steps we have seen have been when facilitated tabletop exercises lead diverse school teams through scenarios, and school officials end up making substantial changes to their emergency plans,” Trump said.
Finding an effective tool
Since 2007, Loudoun County has used the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines developed by Dewey Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia and a forensic clinical psychologist. In addition, each school has a multidisciplinary team that includes a school administrator, school mental health staff, law enforcement and a representative from the district’s division of safety and security.
“School leaders should first invest in counseling, restorative practices, and universal prevention programs — such as positive behavioral interventions and supports, social-emotional learning, and bullying prevention — to promote a positive, safe, and supportive learning environment,” Lody said.
The vast majority of threats can easily be resolved by connecting students with appropriate resources and do not reflect true intent to harm, according to Lody.
“Contrary to the belief, over-responding or over-disciplining students for minor threats ultimately undermines student perceptions of fairness and school climate,” he said.
Civil liberties groups have pushed back on the use of threat assessments on the grounds they infringe on individual rights. However, Cornell said this is misguided and based on anecdotal cases that do not reflect standard threat assessment practices. According to Cornell, the prevention strategy aims to help troubled students, reduce school suspension and limit law enforcement action to about 1% of school threat cases.
“Our research shows that threat assessments are carried out without producing the racial/ethnic disparities that are observed when schools do not use threat assessment,” Cornell said. “It is unfortunate and ironic that some advocates of civil rights are rejecting one of the few approaches in education that demonstrably reduces racial disparities.
The bottom line
With every violent act that happens at a school, there are multiple other threats prevented from escalating. But there is still much work to be done.
“The bottom line is school violence can be prevented,” Lody said. “Studies have shown that most attackers engage in some concerning behavior or people already knew about the attacker’s thoughts or communication. It is important that all members of the school community feel comfortable reporting concerns and schools make it clear on the ways to do this.”
Likewise, Dorn said it’s important to remember “threat assessment is not only about identifying the next active shooter — rather it is a problem-solving process focused on identifying students who are at risk and need assistance.”
“In some cases, that assistance might include a law enforcement response. In other cases, the student might be at risk for committing suicide or other self-harm,” Dorn said. “This is not a punitive process."