Zero Tolerance for School-based Threats

In the early 2000s, my middle school spent a couple of years plagued by bomb threats. This was around the time when the shock and awe of Columbine were still percolating in the minds of educators. Threats were taken seriously, always.

And so we would find ourselves being bused to the HS Auditorium, or scurrying out to wait in the snowy parking lot so students could go home early, right after the kindergarten runs. Teachers, of course, were free to re-enter the building, but students had to abandon lunches and calculators. The police were involved. Students were warned in assemblies about the Serious Consequences of getting caught—and that they would indeed get caught, one day. And so on.

It would be quiet for a few weeks and then—someone would scrawl a threatening note on the bathroom wall, about a bomb in a locker. And the day was over. Again.

The teachers weren’t in the inner loop of communication as administrators set about finding culprits, but eventually they nabbed someone, and punishments were meted out, and we didn’t have bomb threats for a good long while. There was never an explosive, of course—but the deadliest school bombing massacre in American history occurred 95 years ago in Bath, Michigan, so we’re careful about bombs around here.

Worth noting: The Bath School Bomber was a disgruntled school board member, upset over school taxes, who also killed the Superintendent.

The school massacre that happened last fall in Oxford, Michigan has yielded a copycat effect, with:

…more than 100 students in Michigan accused of threatening schools in the days and weeks after a terrifying shooting rampage at Oxford High School left four students dead and seven people injured. Scores of schools were forced to shut down, while police and sheriff’s departments were overwhelmed as officers raced to investigate each case.  

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said his officers investigate about two school threats a month. “A lot of times, (a threat) means throwing every resource we have at it. We had school threats on consecutive days, and we had 19 officers on it,” he said. “A lot of times it comes out that it’s a seventh-grader who didn’t want to go to school, but by the time we figure that out, we’ve spent 24 hours investigating.”

Exactly.

And that’s what makes this such an intractable problem: Kids do stupid things. How do we deal with that?

Will they do stupid things again if they’re not severely punished the first time? Should they be banished from the school district forever? Sent to Juvie for making an empty threat? Made to pay for their behavior via community service?

The rules are ever-evolving. And for every fan of Restorative Justice, there’s someone else who’s sick of being steamrollered for insisting on strict classroom discipline.

Matching the punishment to the crime is not always simple. It seems to me that hunting and murdering other human beings ought to put you behind bars. But not even that is a guarantee.  

No matter who’s doing the sentencing, there are equivocating factors, including the age and intent of the perpetrator, the level of violence employed or implied, and the political environment of the place where youthful threats are made.

After a credible threat—bombs, shooters, you name it—the focus is often on who could have or should have anticipated the danger (and how to punish them). Who was negligent before or during the terror? Who must pay to find justice for victims?

Here are the questions I’d like answered, instead:

What could have been done to mitigate this situation, before it ever happened? Why do so many students immediately attempt copycat threats? What is there about living in this nation, going to school here, that makes students attracted to aggression, even bloodshed?

With a shooting, we can look at access to lethal weapons. But how do we prevent the urge to cause chaos, to get attention, to seek revenge? To harm other human beings?

If you think I’m suggesting that this job should fall into the laps of teachers, think again.

Teachers need both clear policy and honed human judgment to effectively teach young people. But neither of those is enough to prevent the forces that are pushing students to some very bad decisions involving weapons.

Solving these problems won’t happen with Zero Tolerance policies either, no matter how tough that language sounds to communities.  

We all live in this overheated country. We all see what happens to communities when a whole classroom is mowed down, or an ordinary supermarket becomes a place of terror. We all witness violence in what should be safe community spaces.

It’s everyone’s problem.

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