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After Parkland, Schools Grapple With Threats — And The Best Ways To Respond

LA Johnson

Two months ago today, a shooter killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

After the tragedy, threats to schools across the country rose.

In the month following, there were about 70 threats to schools per day. In the 59 days since the shooting, there have been almost 1,500 threats to schools across the country. And those numbers are likely under-reported, according to the group that tracks them, the Educator's School Safety Network.

The total includes gun threats, bomb threats, or even vague, "unspecified" threats to public and private schools, including colleges and universities.

One school system in North Carolina has had nine bomb threatssince March 15. The words "school shooting 4/13" were found written in a University of Michigan bathroom earlier this week. Students made almost half of these threats on social media.

It's not uncommon for school threats to rise after high-profile school shootings. "Many students are stimulated to make threats that are pranks or expressions of anger with no serious intent to carry them out," Dewey Cornell, an expert on school violence at the University of Virginia, tells NPR. Teachers and school staff react strongly to threats following a shooting, he explains, and, in rare cases, students who are truly in crisis can be inspired by news coverage to make a threat.

The small, Ohio-based nonprofit that tracks all these numbers has found itself at the center of the national conversation on school safety since February. The Educator's School Safety Network has been cited all over the news — from the New York Times to the Washington Post to NPR.

The nonprofit's only full–time staff members are a mother and daughter duo: Amy Klinger, an associate professor at Ashland University, and lawyer Amanda Klinger. It's a family business: two of Amy Klinger's other children have worked as subcontractors for the group. They lead safety and emergency response training for educators across the country — and whenever Amy has a minute, she combs through local news reports and social media to tally up the threats made to schools.

Her most common search terms: school violence, school shooting, bomb threats.

Amy Klinger started counting these events because she couldn't find the numbers anywhere else. The Educator's School Safety Network is the only central collection of threats and incidents nationwide.

The two full-timers have been tracking threats to schools since 2014, but after the shooting in Parkland, they created a live online tracker to keep tabs on the events since that day.

Their numbers come mostly from public schools, however, because many private schools and colleges handle threats and incidents internally. If a threat doesn't ever appear in news reports or school websites, it won't make it into the live tracker.

"It's just a lot of man-hours to do it, but it's really important that that data is right," Klinger says.

Collecting the numbers herself gives her a clear picture of exactly what is going on in schools — information she wants to know before she conducts training sessions for educators.

When the threats come, what should schools do?

When teachers and school staff members do hear of threats, knowing exactly how to respond can be challenging. Klinger says that schools often treat all threats exactly the same.

That shouldn't happen, says Cornell, the professor at UVA. According to his research, less than one percent of all threats to schools become incidents.

He tells NPR, "Schools must avoid two errors: over-reacting to the numerous threats that are not serious and under-reacting to the rare threats that are deadly serious."

That's when school personnel need to do their homework. A threat assessment is an approach that gives educators a checklist to evaluate threats and formulate a plan for responding appropriately. For the process to work, he says, school staff are responsible for "carefully gathering information and determining whether someone who has made a threat actually poses a threat."

While "threat assessment" sounds like a strategy for a SWAT team, the approach has been shown to reduce school suspensions — which studies show disproportionately target black students, boys, and students with disabilities.

Professor Cornell and thousands of other experts signed on to an eight-point "call to action" to prevent gun violence in February. In it, they pressed for a national threat assessment training program for educators, part of a larger vision to "soften" schools with additional mental health resources, school discipline reform, and a focus on establishing a positive school climate.

Knowing what types of threats are most common informs threat assessment strategies — so folks like Amy Klinger can help schools be up to date in their analysis and practice.

"We didn't get into this to do statistical research," Klinger says. "We did it out of necessity. We are a training organization first and foremost, and we want to put resources in the hands of educators. But we can't do that accurately if we don't know what they're up against."

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