Schools across Western Pa., U.S. try to keep students safe in face of increased threats | #schoolshooting

A barrage of threats against several school districts across the region — including Allegheny County this week and Westmoreland several weeks ago — sent administrators reaching for action plans to help thwart any potential danger to students and staff.

Violence at schools is spiking as students return to in-person classes following months of online learning because of the covid-19 pandemic. This year, there have been 29 school shootings resulting in injury or death, including 21 since Aug. 1, according to Education Week. The most recent came Tuesday at a high school in Oxford, Mich., where a 15-year-old student is charged with killing four classmates and injuring seven others.

Western Pennsylvania schools have responded to student fights and threats that this week alone disrupted five Allegheny County districts, including Pittsburgh Public Schools and 13 Propel Schools as well as West Mifflin, North Hills and Clairton City school districts. Local police and the FBI are investigating.

Pittsburgh placed all of its schools on modified lockdown Friday following social media threats of potential violence.

Jeannette and Greater Latrobe schools were targeted with social media threats in late October, prompting Jeannette officials to temporarily go to virtual learning out of “extreme caution.” Police linked the Greater Latrobe threat to Jupiter, Fla.

“This is unusual,” said Aaron Skrbin, director of safety and security with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. “This volume, this many schools. This is very unusual.”

Skrbin, who is also vice president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Resource Officers, speculated that the increase in violence ties back to the pandemic and social justice issues that have rocked the nation over the past year, leaving adults and children feeling angst and anxiety.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security this year warned of the possibility of heightened threats as students return to classrooms.

The eight-page public awareness bulletin noted that remote learning caused several negative impacts to students. According to a survey of 3,300 students, 78% reported spending four hours or less on school work, 30% reported feeling unhappy or depressed, and 29% said they did not feel connected to school adults and other students.

“I don’t think anybody would disagree that everybody has been under a lot more stress and strain for the last two years,” Skrbin said.

This year, however, school shootings are higher than compared to the past three years.

In 2020, when classes were largely moved online, there were 10 school shootings reported nationwide. There were 24 each in 2018 and 2019. In addition, there were 151 school shooting threats made in September, the Los Angeles Times reported, up from a three-year average of 29 for the month.

“Unfortunately, as we navigate the troubled waters of covid, we are not immune from the traditional threats of violence,” said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm specializing in school security and emergency preparedness training.

Responding to threats

For decades, school districts across the country have had safety plans on file in case of potential threats. Tactics included in those plans likely stem back to practices used when responding to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, where two heavily armed students killed 12 classmates and one teacher.

Safety plans often consist of a checklist that helps school officials and police determine whether a threat is credible. Signs that help include how the threat was received and whether there are any patterns within the threat. Officials also investigate whether other districts in the county or region received similar threats, suggesting it could be a copycat incident.

“There’s always a balance between you have to err on the side of caution … but you also don’t want to be irresponsible about it,” Skrbin said.

If a district immediately shutters a school after receiving a threat, copycats could be encouraged to send threats to other districts, Skrbin said.

Trump added that schools that best handle threats are ones that train communication teams and community partners through “what-if” scenarios and hypothetical situations. Those are designed to prepare them for when threats occur so that “when the real thing happens, it is not the first time your team has got together to act on those processes,” he said.

In Pennsylvania, districts use Safe2Say Something, a tip line that offers an outlet for students to anonymously report concerns about threats or threatening behavior. The program, which is run by the state Attorney General’s Office, was established in 2018 following a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people.

Safe2Say Something was designed by the Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization committed to preventing gun violence among children. The Sandy Hook Promise was founded and is run by several family members who lost loved ones in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six staff members died.

During the 2020-21 school year, when violence at schools decreased because of the pandemic, 10,495 legitimate tips were logged in Pennsylvania through the Safe2Say Something program, according to its annual report. The report did not specify threats made against schools or people.

In that school year, 922 tips were submitted within the Mt. Oliver and Allegheny intermediate units and 494 were submitted through the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit.

During the 2019-20 school year, 23,745 tips were received statewide through the Safe2Say Something program. Of those, 1,156 were threats against a school and 669 were threats against a person. Mt. Oliver and Allegheny intermediate units received 103 threats against a school and 69 threats against people. Westmoreland saw 53 threats against a school and 41 against a person.

“We have Safe2Say Something, which everybody is required to use,” said Jeannette Superintendent Matthew Jones. “We can receive (threats) via that procedure and then those are shared out with the administration team and somebody from Jeannette Police Department would receive that. We would address it as appropriate based on what was received.”

Jones noted that how the threat is received is a major factor in the investigation. If a threat is found within school buildings, administrators and police can use cameras to find the person behind the threat. If it comes across social media, officials have to depend on students, family members and others to determine the sender.

At Mt. Lebanon School District, officials work with municipal police if a rumored or potential threat is received, said spokeswoman Kristen James. The district maintains emergency management and critical incident plans that guide responses and action.

“In circumstances like this, the collaboration between school officials and law enforcement is critical to determine the best course of action,” James said. “There is no specific guideline or standard by which we use to determine closings, going remote or staying open, as particular circumstances would guide action.”

In Hempfield, a threat assessment team was assembled at the district level and at each school. According to Superintendent Tammy Wolicki, the team was provided threat assessment training. In addition, the district works with school and state police to investigate any threats and to determine whether a school needs to close.

Highlands utilizes similar methods, said Superintendent Monique Mawhinney, who noted the district’s communication plan immediately goes into effect if a threat is received.

“The district will always err on the side of caution when making decisions to assure the safety of our students and staff,” Mawhinney said.

The problem today, Trump said, comes from threats received through social media.

“Rumors and misinformation threats that used to spread in hours and days are now spreading in minutes,” he said.

To help combat social media threats, Trump suggested having a crisis communication team in social media so that accurate information can be distributed as soon as possible.

“Generally speaking, a majority of school threats will be unfounded, but no administration wants to be the one that’s credible,” Trump said. “Every threat has to be treated seriously and investigated thoroughly, but by doing so that doesn’t mean it will equate to closures and evacuations.”

Changing landscape

School administrators have been combating threats for decades. But the 1999 Columbine shooting acted as a watershed moment for modern safety plans and policing, Skrbin said.

“That event changed the way that schools trained to respond to such events and it changed significantly how law enforcement responds to that event,” Skrbin said. “Over the course of 20 years, there’s been this evolution of how schools handle safety and security and how police respond.”

In response to the Columbine shooting and other shootings over the next two decades, policymakers passed several new laws and regulations in an effort to stop similar events. In addition, money has been funneled to districts to help fund infrastructure and school resource officers.

But action is largely taken after a high-profile shooting case occurs within a district, found an analysis from Child Trends, a research organization focused on improving the lives of children and youth. Prevention-focused recommendations such as character education and school climate have been unrelated to school shootings, according to the report.

Prior to the pandemic, an Associated Press poll found that a quarter of U.S. parents said they were not confident in their local school’s ability to respond to an armed attack. Student bullying (88%) outpaced all other reasons parents believed school shootings happened, compared to the internet (78%), parents (75%), media (73%) and movies/video games (69%).

Today, efforts are shifting, with conversations centering around mental health — something that has been amplified by the pandemic, Skrbin said. As conversations continue, mental health services for students could increase in coming years, which is something Skrbin has already seen the beginnings of.

“I think that’s only grown over the years,” he said.

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