Threats up last school year
Student threats against Kentucky schools are not uncommon as shown by a spike of 294 threats from Jan. 23 to April 30 of this year, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety said.
“We had just a flood of threats,” said Jon Akers. “And basically some kids got the idea that if they wrote something on a bathroom wall or posted something anonymously (online) or whatever the case may be, they could get out of school for a day or two.
“So schools were shutting down – as they should – and investigating these threats…”
Most are not credible, but Akers said the best way to curb threats like the one allegedly made by a student at Woodford County Middle School Aug. 10 is for the juvenile to be accountable for his or her actions.
“If you don’t have a meaningful consequence,” said Akers, “you’re not going to change misbehavior. Because if they feel like they can get away with most anything, then they’re going to continue with whatever negative behavior that’s occurring.”
Since last school year’s surge, Akers said the number of threats in Kentucky schools have declined, in large part because school districts are holding students accountable for their actions and placing them in an alternative school setting when necessary.
In addition to having a consequence, Dr. Joe Bargione, lead psychologist for Jefferson County Public Schools for about 25 years, said students may need to talk with someone (a school psychologist or counselor) about why they made a threat. “And is there a way that we can support that young person so they don’t make those kinds of threats in the future,” he said. Bargione, who retired in March 2018, said several factors may have a role in the rise of threats against schools. For example, he said social media creates an environment for copycats.
“There’s no one reason why (students make threats),” said Bargione. “Sometimes, they can be more generalized towards the school (as was the case at WCMS). And it could be they were disappointed with a staff person. For example, ‘I got kicked off the football team’ or ‘I got kicked off the club I was involved with’ or … ‘I feel bullied’ – and if that’s the case ‘I want to get back at that school or that person who possibly bullied me.’
“So there’s no one reason why. The best they (school leaders) can do in those situations is to actually sit down and talk to that person to see if we can figure out what was it in that individual student that triggered that threat that they made.”
Akers said he has advised school superintendents across Kentucky that every threat must be taken seriously and investigated to determine if it’s credible or not. Even the most “seemingly insignificant threat” must be investigated because someone will know a threat has occurred and then share that knowledge on social media, he explained.
Any student who makes a threat against a school should have to stand in front of a juvenile judge and explain why he or she made that decision, Akers said. A judge should then determine what punishment, if any, is warranted, he added.
“I certainly think community service, lots of community service would be very, very appropriate. I’m not so much for locking them up as much as I am them getting some kind of meaningful consequence like that,” Akers said.
He said some school districts have requested restitution for instruction time lost after a threat leads to classes being cancelled.
“Parents – like it or not – are responsible for their kids’ behavior. They’re responsible for bringing the kids up knowing right from wrong.
And making threats – terroristic threats – is not an acceptable behavior,” said Akers.
He said parents in Woodford County and elsewhere need to take responsibility if they are not teaching their kids right from wrong at home.
While there’s no one reason for an increase in school threats, Bargione said young people are exposed to more violence in their communities, as well as other violent acts (elsewhere) on TV and social media.
“Now, it plays out for a longer period of time. And then if I’m a young person struggling myself with some mental health issues and I see that (violent) event on social media like You Tube or Twitter then I’ll keep replaying that…
“I think that repeated exposure to the event… potentially could be some of the reasons why we’re seeing an increase in these threats.”
That’s why Bargione said it’s important for parents to limit their children’s exposure to media coverage of mass shootings like those at
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and Marshall County High School in western Kentucky. He said it’s also important for teachers, school counselors and others to have ongoing positive relationships with students and their families so teachers and others are more aware of what’s happening at home.
“At schools and in homes,” said Bargione, “we need for them (students) to have a sense of belonging… Young people do much better if they have at least one positive adult in their lives…” If children have a dysfunctional home life, he said it’s even more important for them to have a positive relationship with an adult at school.