As thousands of students gathered at the nation’s capital Saturday, including dozens from the Capital Region, they expressed shared fears about gun violence in their schools and communities.
Those fears are ultimately different for different districts: Students from many urban districts fear the everyday gun violence of losing a cousin or friend to a stray bullet, and they live with the resulting trauma; while students in suburban districts live with trauma infused from a lifetime of watching mass shootings play out on TV, thinking their school could be next.
In a series of emotional and moving speeches from a stage framing the Capitol, a diverse group of students from across the country – from South Los Angeles to Newtown, Connecticut – told stories of losing loved ones and friends to gun violence, even facing down the barrel of a gun as a child.
As students continue to protest gun violence and call for stricter laws, a spate of threats – both locally and from far off parts of the internet – have caused disruptions in schools across the Capital Region, disruptions that make manifest those ever-present concerns.
While it's difficult to know how frequent threats of violence have been at schools, they are drawing closer attention and appear to represent copy-cat behavior, according to law enforcement officials and some academics. And social media has certainly complicated the threat landscape – but old forms of threats, like the bathroom wall, remain in play.
The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office has responded to well over a half dozen cases of violent threats against schools since the Parkland, Florida, shooting last month, in some cases resulting in serious charges for young students.
The pile of charges against students is starting to grow. An 18-year-old Colonie High School student last week was charged with making a terroristic treat, a felony, after he allegedly said something around other students about coming back with a gun. In a letter, the Colonie High principal wrote that the student “has been extensively questioned, searched and held accountable for the commentary made carelessly in the proximity of other students.”
Other charges have been filed for students far from being treated as adults. Students as young as 12 have been charged with making a terroristic threat in recent weeks, according to releases from Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo’s office. The sheriff's office has been called on to respond to threats in districts in all corners of Saratoga County: Shenendehowa, Corinth, Galway.
Zurlo said that none of the Saratoga County threats have turned out to be backed up by plans to carry out imminent attacks at a school. He said in most cases the students didn’t seem to grasp the serious consequences of making a threat.
“What goes through their head? I have no idea, I don’t know,” Zurlo said. “I don’t think these kids think before they act. … I don’t know what goes into their rationale.”
But law enforcement and school administrators say they must treat every threat seriously.
Even threats ruled not credible by police can cause major disruptions to the school day. In the wake of recent school threats, students have stayed home at area schools. Administrators have scrambled to investigate threats and communicate with parents as rumors spread through media new and old.
“My kids are at school today, but I am sick to my stomach,” Kirstina Smith, a parent of students at Skano Elementary in Shenendehowa, told the Daily Gazette last week after hundreds of students stayed home from school the Monday after a threat was found in a bathroom in the district.
No clear profile
An FBI report commissioned after the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado warned that there was no single profile of a school shooter – aside from being male.
“There’s no clear profile of a school shooter,” said David Miller, a professor in the University at Albany School of Education, citing the FBI study. “At least not anything particularly helpful… It makes prediction in individual cases very difficult if not impossible.”
But research has found that nearly all school shooters had told other people about their plans.
The Safe School Initiative study of over 35 targeted school attacks over 25 years found that attackers were males, used guns, planned at least two days in advance and almost always told somebody about their intentions. Miller also said that mass shooters are often suicidal and demonstrate traits of suicidal behavior.
“[They] typically communicate threats to other people,” Miller said.
Psychologists and social workers say that students who make threats of violence or ultimately carry out violence display behaviors that can be assessed, diagnosed and treated. They warn that resources for student mental health services are still far from where they need to be and that school resources and outside mental health resources need to be better connected.
Eunju Lee, a professor at the UAlbany School of Social Work, said school shootings represent a failure of the mental health system to find and serve at-risk youths.
“We failed them: the victims as well as the shooter,” Lee said. “The Parkland shooter committed a hideous crime; he also suffered a lot.”
Lee said that threats of school violence are often an expression of masculine anger and frustration. Acting out by making a threat is a way for young males to feel powerful.
“By simply making a phone call, even though the consequences are dire, they really see: I shut down the school,” she said.
The academics cautioned that in hindsight the behavior of someone who ultimately carries out a violent attack appears to clearly indicate they were on course to become a shooter, but that the reality on the ground before anything has happened is far more complicated. Predicting the next shooter may be impossible. They said broader efforts to improve school climate, strengthen mental health services for students and limit gun access to troubled children are the best paths toward mitigating against future school shootings.
Early intervention is also key: Educators are not trained as mental health professionals, but they should feel empowered to reporting troubling behavior, said Dolores Cimini, a licensed psychologist with the UAlbany counseling center.
“I certainly encourage school personnel to consider any signs they may see in a student,” she said, suggesting educators look to connect students to services after early warning signs. “See it and take it as a bridge to get the students the vital assistance they may need.”
Miller, Lee and others also pointed out that people in countries around the world face mental health problems but that compared to other developed countries, America’s gun prevalence makes it more likely people with mental health problems become involved in gun violence.
“What does distinguish [the U.S.] is easier access to firearms,” Miller said.