Internal school threats no longer benign

Schools respond with added security, training for teachers.

Ohio is spending millions to fortify school property to keep out violent intruders, but internal threats are also getting heightened attention.

Police logged 65 such complaints in 2013, according to data from law enforcement officials who monitor schools in Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties.

The complaints — including a Columbine-like threat to blow up a school — ranged from handwritten notes in school bathrooms to to verbal threats made randomly in a hallway or on a school bus. Officials say none of the threats resulted in actual violence.

Ken Trump of National School Safety and Security Services, a school security consultant based in Cleveland, said there was a rush to fortify schools after the Sandy Hook shootings.

“We saw many knee-jerk reactions,” Trump said. “The reality is the threat can come from outside the school or inside the school.”

Local officials say overall school violence is down and these types of threats are a small part of negative student behavior. But with security a concern everywhere, threats once considered benign may even result in criminal charges.

“In the climate that we’re in right now, we have to take that stuff seriously,” said Eric Burris, chief of police in Tipp City. “If we don’t at least make some kind of effort to try and figure out who wrote the note and charge them so that we can discourage that behavior in the future, then we’re just not doing what we should be doing.”

Some threats can cause havoc. During a three-day period in February, written threats were discovered on the bathroom walls at both Tippecanoe Middle School and the high school. The bomb squad from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was called in to search the high school after the first threat was found, which included a reference to the Columbine shooting in Colorado, Burris said.

The schools did not go on lock-down and classes were not canceled, but many parents kept their children home.

“It disrupts the whole school,” Burris said.

Prosecutors arrested and charged a student from the middle school and one from the high school in connection with the threats. The students were found not guilty of the charges in Miami County Juvenile Court, Burris said. One of the students is back in school, while the other one is no longer in the district, he said.

“It was really a wake-up call for us,” Burris said.

The district hired off-duty Tipp City police officers to patrol their buildings and a new alarm system was installed; the system allows teachers to use a panic button or a few computer key strokes to send a distress signal to the police department, Burris said.

John Kronour, superintendent of Tipp City schools, said he didn’t want to see the entire culture of the district change, but students have had to give up some of their freedoms. He said the district has established a threat assessment team and is doing different kinds of drills, including a recently staged shooting drill.

The idea is to keep the threats to a minimum: “I don’t know that there’s a way to say that you can absolutely prevent it,” Kronour said.

Trump suggested schools spend time training teachers and support staff to respond less emotionally in a crisis.

“One of the greatest challenges has been to try to get people to think cognitively, not emotionally and to stay focused on what we know are our best practices,” Trump said.

Local officials agreed.

Kronour said Tipp City schools have been conducting training sessions to help prepare teachers to react in a crisis situation.

“I think our training, some of the things we’ve learned to look for from the FBI, has helped in that manner,” he said.

Northeastern Local Schools Superintendent Lou Kramer said keeping an open dialogue is vital.

His Clark County district dealt with a rash of threats in November — three within a single week. Parents and the Clark County Sheriff’s office were notified each time, Kramer said. No one has been identified as making the threats and the investigation is ongoing.

“It still comes back to relationships,” Kramer said of preventing threats. “Can you make relationships with the kids in your school? Is it a positive environment? Can teachers make those relationships with kids? Can principals do that with kids?

“Can we do that with parents so that when there is an issue they will call the school?”