Schools across the country are dealing threats of violence, leaving officials unsure of when to ignore the threats and when to take them seriously.
Threats of mass violence continue to come across social media, educators say. However, many of those are discovered to be hoaxes and never make it to the public.
But due to the increase in the number of campus attacks, school officials say they need to take threats made to schools more seriously than they did 10 or 20 years ago. Even when a school does not decide to shut down, they tend to increase the number of security guards they have patrolling the campus.
Electronic alert systems were installed in many schools across the country as a result of the Virginia Tech Massacre in 2007. The systems also send text messages to parents, students and staff members pertaining to potential dangers, writes Richard Perez-Pena for The New York Times.
Campus decisions concerning how to respond to these threats typically fall in the hands of administrators, who in turn rely on law enforcement to offer advice. Many times there is limited information available and very little time to make a decision. While some fear the outcome of not responding strongly enough when lives are at stake, officials say there are costs to overreacting as well, including additional police, lost classroom time, heightened nerves and the threat of copycats.
"It's a real dilemma, and it puts university administration and law enforcement, both, in a tough position, to evaluate those threats," said R. Douglas Schwandt, the chief of the University of Missouri police. "Most recently, I think there's definitely a tendency to err on the side of caution."
Threats received recently at the two largest school districts in the nation generated two different reactions. An email message sent to both Los Angeles and New York schools suggesting that a jihadi attack with guns and bombs would follow caused Los Angeles schools to shut down for the day, while schools in New York determined the email to be a hoax and remained open.
The White House stated that the different reactions to the threat show how first-responders are responsible for their communities, writes Eddie Scott for The Village Sun Times.
National School Safety and Security Services performed an analysis in 2014, discovering a 158% increase in the number of school threats that had been received that year. Around 37% of those threats were sent electronically, with almost 33% causing schools to be evacuated. Almost 10% of schools were shut down for the day as a result of the threats.
"It feeds on itself, because the more you have incidents that do result in harm, the more sensitive people get, and the more strongly they react," Sheila Bair, the president of Washington College, said. "You've got to put the safety of the students first. If someone's harmed, that's irreversible."