Shooting threats and rumors put pressure on schools, and parents and students are on edge


Parents in the Penn-Delco School District inundated Sun Valley High School with phone calls Tuesday and rushed to pick their children up as rumors spread that something violent could be happening.

In the Bristol borough, three students were arrested last week for making three threats to shoot in as many days, causing school closings, early layoffs and heightened anxiety among parents and students.

And on Friday in Cheltenham, the high school principal informed parents that police were investigating a post on a toilet stall threatening a school shooting on December 17. A week earlier, the district had called in police after discovering a social media article describing the school’s high floor plan with exits surrounded.

Such scenes have unfolded throughout the Philadelphia area and nationwide. Schools pursue a flood of threats – many of which are fueled by social media – that often do not materialize. But in the process, students and parents are left behind, unsure of how to feel about going to school.

“They are teenagers. They know what happened in Oxford, ”said Amanda Scott, a relative in the Penn-Delco district, referring to the recent school shootings in Michigan. Her husband rushed to pick up their son from Sun Valley High after texting during a lockdown on Tuesday that there was a threat of shooting and he wanted to go home.

“Ten minutes go by, 15 minutes go by – they’re like, ‘Is this the one? “, Said Scott.

School administrators see various reasons for the recent wave of threats, the reports made by students and the ensuing panic: Increased reliance on social media. Fear of the Michigan shooting – and determination not to let a similar tragedy happen here. And social and emotional needs that may not have been met during the pandemic disruption.

Dewey Cornell, a clinical forensic psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia whose protocol for assessing threats to students is widely used in the United States and Canada, said he had heard districts across the country say that there had been a “wave of student threats”, many of which came from social media and possibly part of a “spillover effect of copy threats following a high profile incident”.

But he sees a problem that was present before the Michigan shooting: “A general increase in student anxiety, distress and misconduct in school,” said Cornell, who heads the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia. “We also have teachers and counselors who are naturally tired, short-staffed and less able to handle student challenges. Schools are under enormous pressure.

In Philadelphia, where children live in the midst of a gun violence crisis, the school district has used its threat assessment protocol more than 50 times so far this year. That’s a lot, even for a large school system like Philadelphia’s, said Kevin Bethel, district security manager.

The district Carver High School of Engineering and Science closed on Monday after someone posted a photo of several guns on Instagram and promised to “shoot Carver High School on Norris St and Berks today at 2:00 “. District security personnel, Philadelphia Police and Police Department of Homeland Security investigators who are trained in data mining have all responded. No shootings took place.

With social media so prevalent among children – and a lifeline for many in Philadelphia and other school systems where children have learned virtually for a year or more – “it creates a challenge, especially for the forces of school order and safety and principals, ”Bethel said. . “There is so much activity.

Threats sometimes spread faster on social media than schools have been able to respond to. Some students at West Chester East High School stayed home on Wednesday after waking up to text messages and social media posts warning of a threat at school. Others have asked parents to pick them up early.

The warning stems from a social media post by a student the day before, announcing a “legal threat to the school.” Police investigated and determined overnight that it was not violent.

But “you put the words school and threatens together, and it took a life of its own, ”said Superintendent Bob Sokolowski, whose district investigated two other threats last week: a message in a bathroom at Peirce Middle School discovered later Wednesday, and reports Thursday night that a student is considering bringing a gun to Rustin’s high school. Both were without merit.

He said he understood the impulse to report. “Parents and students are worried right now: ‘Is my school going to drop the ball? “”

At Penn-Delco, Superintendent George Steinhoff said he saw a “high point in the trend that is happening across the country” last week: On Monday, the high school was disturbed by students fighting in the halls, in a scene which was then widely viewed Social Media. Then on Tuesday morning, a student showed up to report that she had seen a written threat the day before.

The district immediately began to investigate and went into custody. The threat ended up not being believable, but there was just enough time for students to start worrying, Steinhoff said. With so many students texting their parents and leaving, the high school ended up firing earlier.

“In some ways it’s an incident that was created essentially from a non-incident,” said Steinhoff. “This is a sign of how the heightened anxiety among students at this time can make these situations a lot more difficult to handle.”

Scott, Penn-Delco’s parent, felt the school had unfairly criticized students for turning to text or social media conversations when they heard threat rumors.

“The only time something ever happened it would be devastating,” Scott said.

Steinhoff said there was “a fine line between making sure you’re supporting the students” while trying to keep order. He plans to host a webinar for parents on Monday and also wants to hear from students about their needs.

“There is no question that this national adolescent mental health crisis is manifesting itself in schools,” he said.

This fall, Upper Darby schools imposed only one true “lockdown,” which involves darkening the lights and can only be lifted by police, Superintendent Dan McGarry said. But “locks” or “locks” that restrict outside access to the school or prevent students from moving between classrooms have been more common. The high school, for example, was briefly locked down on Friday after a “message was sent to a printer located in the school about causing damage to the school,” district officials said. Police determined this was not an immediate threat.

Earlier on Friday, the district informed the community that a social media post was circulating among students with the words HHS shooting written in a bathroom referred to a neighborhood in another state. The high school was also on lockdown on Thursday after a student showed administrators a social media post with a photo of a person holding a gun and threatening the student.

Evaluating the various threats is “not as straightforward as people want it to be,” especially with social media, McGarry said, where it may not be clear when and where a photo was taken.

McGarry said Upper Darby also trains and disciplines students involved in threats “to the extent possible.”

In the Bristol borough, police have laid criminal charges against the three students who made threats last week – two high school students and a sixth grader – even though the students did not have access to guns .

“Children just want to feel safe when they come to school to learn,” said Bristol Borough Police Sgt. Joseph Moors. “I want parents and students to know that people will be held accountable for their actions.”

Still, administrators see challenges: Social media isn’t going to go away. And schools need to get to the root of the problems that lead some students to utter threats, said Bethel, the Philadelphia security guard.

“Whether we stop them or not, he or she will not be kicked out of the system,” he said. “We need to be able to manage children’s mental health for the long term.

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