— A threat made against Central High School in St. Joseph, Missouri, that circulated in October on Snapchat
Before a mass shooting, communication of intent to do harm is common, and about half of all mass shooters do so. The professionals who evaluate what is known as “leakage” try to separate the signal from the noise, the real threat from the hoax. They look for red flags such as mentions of a specific date and time, weapon, location and targets, and motive for the attack.
The threat against Central High was taken seriously. But there was a highly confusing and complicating factor. Different versions of the threat were being made at about the same time against more than 30 schools in more than a dozen states — including California, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. It seemed unlikely that multiple, simultaneous attacks were about to take place.
School leaders found themselves asking: Is it better to overreact than not react at all? This is the impossible situation they are facing with increasing regularity. Closing schools for a hoax unnecessarily spreads fear and curtails valuable instructional time. Not closing risks the deadly consequences of ignoring the warning signs of danger, which law enforcement has done all too frequently in the past. Out of an abundance of caution, some schools did close. Many ramped up police patrols. Parents also chose to keep their children home.
Weighing how to respond to threats is getting harder because threats of violence are rising at the same time schools are dealing with an unprecedented number of shootings — 205 so far this year.
In September, a record 151 school shooting threats were made, up from a three-year average of 29 for the month. This means a staggering 63% of all shooting threats made at the start of the school year since 2018 were made this year. Half of those threats came via social media, and 28% were made by someone who had access to a gun.
These statistics come from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database, conducted in partnership with the Violence Project mass shooting research center. Since 2018, reported shooting threats to U.S. schools have been tallied — 41 occurred in September 2018 and 35 the following September. In September 2020, when many schools were closed or socially distanced, 11 threats were reported.
This September, a police response was common — 45% of all threats resulted in an arrest. However, only about half of those arrests were for threats deemed credible, meaning that they showed a capability to attack by having access to a firearm, a detailed plan or through other means. The rest were hoaxes, like the ones sent to schools in late October.
National and state guidelines exist for many aspects of public education, but there’s no standardized playbook for dealing with online threats. Because all schooling and policing is local, communities are left to figure it out for themselves, in many cases without the tools or critical infrastructure necessary to do so effectively. Relatively few local police departments can trace an anonymous message to its source and fewer still offer viable alternatives to arrest.
In research published Nov. 4 in the journal JAMA Network Open, James and Jillian examine the motivation behind threats of violence among 170 mass shooters in a variety of public settings, including schools, since 1966. Threats of a shooting were most commonly associated with previous counseling and suicidality. In other words, they were a cry for help as opposed to seeking fame or attention.
The alarming rise in school shooting threats is a bellwether for the current state of the mental health of young people. The kids are not all right. And if threatening violence is increasingly their last-ditch effort to get us to notice, then a criminal justice response won’t address their problems. In fact, it may exacerbate any emotional crisis, thoughts of suicide or underlying grievance with a school, resulting in future violence.
We can’t punish our way out of this. Our research shows that all shooting threats should be taken seriously as a possible signal of extreme personal distress.
Responding to school threats with criminal charges encourages silence when we need people to open up so we can prevent shootings. This year, 30% of the threats made were anonymous. The rest came from students and were typically first spotted by other students. For young people to report concerns about their peers with confidence — for students to say something if they see something — they need to be able to trust that adults will actually do something and that they won’t make matters worse.
Faced with an unprecedented volume of threats, schools need resources to do more than simply train students to run, hide and fight for survival, while law enforcement and community partners need tools to effectively assess social media threats and respond appropriately. Threats of violence are a critical moment for interceding in the lives of students who need help. By funding school-based mental health services and systems for crisis response, we can prevent next September from becoming another record year for school shooting threats.
James Densley is a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University. David Riedman is the co-creator of the K-12 School Shooting Database at the Naval Postgraduate School. Jillian Peterson is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. From the Los Angeles Times.
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