Administrators, law enforcement discuss nature of school threats

Recent local incidents focusing attention on causes, solutions

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On April 15, a little more than a week ago, bomb threats were reported at Anamosa High School and at Benton Community middle/high school.

Earlier in the month, a potential violent threat against Kennedy High School, in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, led the Cedar Rapids Police Department to boost their presence at the area’s grade nine through 12 buildings.

On April 14, police were called to investigate a dangerous threat at Cedar Rapids’s Franklin Middle School.

In all four incidents, school district administrators communicated the information to parents and investigated the threats alongside law enforcement.

At Anamosa, students evacuated the high school building while Benton Community staff responded with a plan of heightened security measures that included closing all but one building entrance and searching bags and backpacks.

“A consistent approach and realization and understanding of the severe consequences of this type of behavior can impact decision making regarding subsequent threats,” wrote Benton Community School District Superintendent Gary Zittergruen in an email to The Gazette. “Threats of this nature cause a significant disruption to the school environment and the school community.”

Balancing caution and communication

Administrators in the Cedar Rapids, Benton and Anamosa all spoke about the importance of communication with parents, students, staff and community members when situations such as these arise.

And students’ cellphones and access to social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have meant that administrators often are not controlling but in fact often following the flow of information on these stories.

“People who need to or want to be in the know, parents or families, they’re not going to be the first to know,” said Laurel Day, security administrator for the Cedar Rapids district.

“We have to take care of the individuals inside our building before we can notify people. ... We let (the community) know as soon as we can. We let them know a lot sooner than we used to.”

Anamosa Superintendent Lisa Beames took a similar approach. Administrators used the district’s Power Announcer communication system to send text and email alerts to families about the recent bomb threat.

But in some cases those messages weren’t the first notification.

“A kid in possession of a cellphone is obviously faster than we can communicate,” she said. “We wanted to get kids out of the building first and foremost. Once we had that, then we ran the Power Announcer.

... It’s just a reality we deal with. It’s just part of our world, and we just have to prioritize what we’re doing and accept the positives and negatives of what we do.”

Another reason for the delay between an incident occurring and administrators sending notifications is a desire to make sure information is accurate before it reaches the community at large.

“We have to be quick and diligent, but at the same time we’re not wanting to send out information to parents to panic them,” said Day, who noted that some parents learned about the Kennedy threat via social media hours before the school district could release information. That was due in part to that threat initially going through the police department.

“That can go out in split second and it can go viral. ... I want to make sure my information is thorough and accurate before I sent a text through School Messenger (email and texting system).”

Day also said it’s been helpful for neighboring districts to work together and reach out if there’s a threat at one of their buildings.

The other piece with communicating these threats is the perception of a potential element of imitation.

“Copycats are a well-known commodity,” Day said when asked about whether the recent threats of violence at area schools might be part of a pattern I want to be careful about the phrasing. I don’t want to suggest that one person sommitted all these threats or that they’re related in that manner. The question posed was about the copycat element and whether kids hear about a violent threat at a neighboring school and then are influenced to attempt it at their own school or in their own district. Any help with wording is very much appreciated.

“It wouldn’t surprise me because, depending on how much it’s played up and depending on who’s providing the threat, it can lead to some sensationalism and attention that the perpetrators are looking for.”

Serious treatment

Police and educators said they treat every threat as if it’s the real thing.

“All of them are taken seriously, to say the least,” said Benton County Sheriff Randy Forsyth, whose office helped investigate the Benton Community incident.

In that case, Forsyth said the student who made the threat had an earlier issue with a teacher and was “probably upset.” Cedar Rapids police Sgt. Mark Andries said other reasons for making threats of that nature usually include righting a perceived wrong, hatred against a specific group, seeking fame or because of mental illness.

Sometimes, the culprit won’t give a reason or claim they were “just kidding,” Andries said.

And while police treat each threat as if it were credible, Andries said they also try not to sensationalize the event. The want to reduce the chances of other people getting the same idea and making threats of their own.

“Copycats are a concern,” Andries said. “That is one reason why we don’t release details of the threat or the response to the threat.”

Forysth said threats made against schools generally are easier to investigate because the suspect is often a student and the school has resources to help narrow down who is responsible.

In the case of the Benton Community threat, Forsyth said students were offering to help find whomever was responsible.

In the past, a bomb threat or a similar scare might have meant dismissing school for the day. Now schools often will move their students to a secure location, rather than releasing them.

In Anamosa, students evacuated the high school and went to the middle school. Classes continued as scheduled for Benton Community and Cedar Rapids students.

Advancements such as bomb-sniffing dogs make law enforcement more confident in their findings — or lack thereof — when doing a search of the building.

Superintendent Beames said a few parents came to get their children in light of the bomb threat.

“There were a couple of kids who were upset and wanted to go home,” she said. “That is a parent’s option.”

Day said that, as a parent, she understands that urge. But as the Cedar Rapids district’s security administrator she cautioned against it.

“The last thing you want is a bunch of people descending on that building while we’re trying to keep it quarantined almost,” Day said. “That’s a nightmare for law enforcement. ... Of course, as a parent, I would be the first one in my car to head to that building.”

Although family members might feel the urge to go pick up their children when they hear about a threat, Forysth said it’s best to follow directions put out by the school.

“Coming to the facility where the bomb is going to be is not the best idea, obviously,” he said.

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