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School administrators, police grapple with student threats

School administrators, police grapple with student threats

State tracks bomb threats, not other threats
School administrators, police grapple with student threats
A State Parks Department officer tracks the grounds of Van Antwerp Middle School on Story Avenue in Niskayuna on Nov. 7.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Once school officials find a threat of violence – scrawled on a bathroom wall, posted on social media, passed in a note – they have no choice but to spring into action.

If students are in school, the building is locked down; if the threat is serious enough, students have to huddle in the corner of a dark, locked room. Police are called and they call other police agencies for support; police dogs head to campus. Investigators study handwriting, examine camera footage, interview witnesses and ultimately seek out the source of the threat.

“We’re dispatching four or five deputies just to have a presence at these schools and that doesn’t include the investigators,” Saratoga County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Brown said of recent responses to school threats.

A recent threat of a school shooting at Niskayuna High School in Schenectady County resulted in a lockdown that stretched until after 6 p.m. and the response of multiples police agencies from across the region.

Also: Districts explore alternatives to armed school resource officers, Nov. 25, 2018

Even though few, if any, school threats in the region in recent years have been backed up by the actual means or intent to carry out the threat, school administrators and police say they have no choice but to treat every threat as serious. Sometimes those threats have the consequences to match the seriousness of the response, with some students, including some as young as 12, being charged with making a terroristic threat, a felony.

However, data on how many threats schools receive each year – or comparisons of the different types of threats – are hard to come by. For well over a decade, school districts in the state have been required to report the number of bomb threats in schools as part of an annual accounting of violent or disruptive incidents. The frequency of bomb threats has fallen both statewide and in the Capital Region to about half of what they were in the mid-2000s.

Information Graphics

But districts aren’t required to report other forms of threats – even as social media posts and handwritten notes promising to attack a school or threatening a shooting can cause every bit the disruption that a bomb threat does.

The state’s violent-incident reporting requirements were updated and adopted by the Board of Regents in December 2016, and districts were required to file their latest reports under the new requirements this summer. But districts are still required to only report bomb threats and no other threats of violence.

“At the time that the recommendations were developed (during the 2013-2014 school year), school threats via social media were relatively uncommon,” a state Education Department spokesperson wrote in a department response to questions about the reporting requirements.

Those other types of threats appear to have become more common since the new reporting standards were adopted. In the aftermath of a massacre at a Florida school in February, districts in the Capital Region dealt with a spate of threats that turned out to be not credible. There were over a half-dozen threats investigated in Saratoga County schools in the just the month following that shooting.

This fall, Niskayuna and Ballston Spa school districts have both had to deal with multiple threats, some of which resulted in felony charges against students. A 13-year-old Schalmont student last weekend made a threat involving Mohonasen schools; police investigated and determined it not credible. Three days later a 13-year-old Schalmont student made a threat about Schalmont schools; police investigated and determined it also was not credible.

Impacts

But the fallout of each threat can create academic disruption, strain police resources and result in life-altering consequences for the student who makes the threat.

“These cases take up a huge amount of resources, and these kids get in serious trouble,” said Brown, who leads the investigations unit in the Saratoga County Sheriff's Office. “So if we can prevent them in the first place, I prefer they not make the threats.”

Iroquois Middle School in the Niskayuna district twice this school year has gone into lockdown in response to a threat. After the lockdowns, administrators try to make themselves visible to students, host forums and offer counseling and other support.

“They are taking these events extraordinarily seriously; they are concerned about their own safety,” Iroquois Middle School Principal Victoria Wyld said of the students. “They have been focused on trying to help make their schools a safer place.”

The lockdowns themselves, especially ones that stretch past the normal end to the school day, have caused stress and anxiety for students and parents on the other end of frantic text messages. After Niskayuna High School entered its extended lockdown earlier this month – an announcement told students they were not in a drill – students didn’t know how scared they should be. Some students have said they thought there might have been an active shooter in the building or other imminent threat.

“Her first text was: ‘I love you mommy, I’m scared,’” said Ruth Basantes, the parent of a Niskayuna student who messaged her during the lockdown.

Students complained they didn’t know what was happening and that rooms weren’t equipped to handle students sheltered away for hours at a time. Some kids had to urinate in wastebaskets.

“You feel helpless, like you have no influence on what’s going on and like you have no choice in anything,” Niskayuna junior Sean Collier said the day after the hours-long lockdown.

District officials and police have grappled with how to mitigate against what at times seems like a desire some students have to copy other threats.

Also: Districts explore alternatives to armed school resource officers, Nov. 25, 2018

The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office changed its publicity policy in the spring in an attempt to limit copycat threats: the department stopped sending out media releases after arrests of students who had made threats.

“We are not releasing releases on school threats because we found they have made them increase,” said Lt. Jeff Brown, head of the investigations unit. “We think the attention is exacerbating that."

But administrators and police have also said they can’t know what goes on in the head of a student who decides to threaten violence – even without the intent to carry out that threat – while promising to hold the students accountable under district police and state laws.

“These are criminal acts, and they are criminal acts we take very seriously,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said at a community forum following the extended lockdown.

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