May 2, 2018 — On Wednesday, April 25, a student at Mapleton High School was investigated for a possible threat made against the school. The threat was not found to be credible, and the situation was quickly quelled.
In the aftermath, rumors spread about the incident and questions arose as to why Mapleton School District did not disclose the incident officially to the public when it occurred. The answer to those questions lie in the delicate balance schools face regarding the act of students threatening violence, and the responsibility educators and law enforcement have in protecting student privacy.
“Last Wednesday, we received information from a student that they overheard another student make a potential threat,” Mapleton School District Superintendent Jodi O’Mara said. “I can tell you it was a threat of violence to bring a gun to school. It was not specific, other than that.”
The comment was overheard by a couple of students, who soon reported the incident to school authorities, who quickly isolated the student.
“Any time there’s a threat, whether it’s violence towards others or to self, we act quickly to determine the validity of it,” O’Mara said. “In this instance, involving law enforcement was paramount. … They are trained to ask the questions and read the body language. That’s their job to determine if it’s a credible threat, or if it’s just a comment someone made.”
O’Mara contacted the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, which proceeded, in conjunction with the school district, with an investigation. The threat was found not to be credible, and the deputies escorted the student home.
Due to privacy laws, O’Mara was unable to say what disciplinary actions would be taken, but students “found in violation of the policy can be subject to discipline up to and including expulsion.”
“I’m just really proud that students did what they needed to do,” O’Mara said. “They heard something, they said something. They told us. They reported. That’s what we need.
“Students are our best allies when it comes to any kind of threats towards schools or students. They’re usually the ones that are going to hear it. The fact that students came forward to report it and we were able to investigate it, and nothing happened, to me that means it worked. And I’m so thankful that students spoke up.”
Because the threat was deemed not credible, the district did not decide to make the incident public.
Eugene television station KEZI ran a story on Monday, April 30, questioning the district’s decision in not releasing the information when it occurred.
While the incident was a first for the Mapleton district, the act of students threatening violence in schools are surprisingly commonplace.
The Educator’s School Safety Network found that just two weeks after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, 638 threats were made against schools, according to a March 12 USA Today report. The 638 number is low, considering the figures were gathered solely from media coverage of such incidences.
“I don’t know the details of the Mapleton incident, but in general I can tell you there are different types of threats that happen on a regular basis,” Florence Police Commander John Pitcher said. “They happen all the time.”
There are multiple reasons why a school decides to notify parents of a possible threat, and why they don’t.
“It’s going to depend on each circumstance,” Pitcher said. “It’s hard to put out a blanket policy that I think we should do. I do think there’s some threats you need to put out to people.”
One instance of a threat that should be made public occurred in April in the North Bend School District. In that instance, a student had written on a bathroom stall that a school shooting would occur, according to Coos Bay newspaper The World, in an April 25 article. In that case, the public was notified, and the school was shut down because the school did not know who made the threat, and when it would occur.
“If we had something like that, where we don’t know when it will occur, and we haven’t pinned down who has made the threat, we would close down for the day,” Siuslaw School District Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak said. “In my mind, they made the right call.”
But the North Bend incident was difficult because of how the threat was made and when it was found. The majority of threats reported to officials are verbal, and, in most cases, non-credible.
“We’ve had kids who have made those angry utterances,” Grzeskowiak said. “They’ll say something dumb in the moment, it’s overheard by somebody else, and other people talk about it later in the day. By the time it’s made the rounds and comes back to us, and you talk to the kid, what they actually said was not what was reported. That wouldn’t be something we would notify the general school population about.”
Even if a threat is more specific, such as a student specifically saying they will commit a shooting, it still may not be reported to the public.
“If the kid has said that, we call the police,” Grzeskowiak said. “If they find there were no weapons at the home and no ability to carry out an attack, and the student was run through a psychological screening that showed no issues, then it would be disciplinary.”
Many of these cases involve students who are just mad and wanted to get attention.
“But they scared people,” Grzeskowiak said. “For creating that fear for people that are around them, there would be discipline for that.”
These sorts of threats are not uncommon from students.
“I think this is something that kids of have done for years,” Pitcher said. “Kids threaten each other all the time. I’m not condoning it, but it’s immaturity. For years, schools have been put in the position where they’re trying to determine whether there’s something behind a threat or not. Now it’s garnered a lot more attention because of instances like Parkland. And schools have to approach them a little differently, with more caution.”
Even if there is a confirmed threat with a student that has the motivation to carry out an attack, and the means to do it, the public still may not be notified.
In an article in the Siuslaw News last month covering firearms in America, Pitcher talked of a student who had planned an actual attack.
“When I was a sergeant here, a freshman told the principal about a kid who was making some comments that really had him concerned,” Pitcher said. “The principal came to me with the young boy. We talked. There was enough to be concerned about. We went out, talked to the young man’s family. There were definitely concerns. He had a gun hidden that he had gotten from his dad, and the dad didn’t realize he had gotten it out of his safe.
“But we got that young man some help. From everything I know, that young man is a very good person. A very good man. A contributing member of society.”
Still, the incident was not reported to the public.
“If it has to be put out, it would have to be a critical threat,” Pitcher said. “It would have to be something that we have no control over. Like the one when I was a sergeant, we had that situation under control. We got people involved. We had a safety plan. We got that kids some help. We did not put that out to everyone. The ones you have to to tell the public about are if it’s a possible credible threat, and you don’t have a handle on the possible suspect. You have no safety plan. You have no way to enact a safety plan. Absent those, because we’re talking about young kids, I think you have to be very careful about what you put out to the public.”
While there are legal reasons regarding children’s privacy that often prevent officials from telling the public about threats, the safety of the child’s future is also at stake.
“You can’t put everything a 14-year-old kids says out there as gospel and make them have to pay the price for that for the rest of their lives for an immature, childish comment that was bound to be a non-credible threat,” Pitcher said. “Even if you don’t put a name to the person, is there enough information that people are going to know who this individual is?”
This complication can be particularly prevalent in small schools like Mapleton.
“Not only do we have to protect our students here at school, but also the information that goes out about our students,” O’Mara explained. “We’re such a small community. It’s easy to figure out which students are involved. And so, we have to use our judgement on when we release information and when we don’t, and what that information includes. And sometimes that’s hard to understand, especially from the outside when it involves a threat like that.”
But sometimes an incident like a threat can go beyond the bounds of the school.
“And then people are thinking that the threat is there, so why didn’t we tell anyone? Then the rumor mill takes over,” said Grzeskowiak.
He added, “Most times it’s just kids saying something to get a rise out of someone else. If there is a direct threat, the people that need to be notified are always notified. If there is something direct towards the school, we let the parents know. But if kids are saying something to get somebody’s goat, there would be discipline for that. We wouldn’t notify the public if a kid told a horrible joke. That would be giving credibility to something that was not credible to begin with.”
While more information regarding the incident has not been released, what is known is that it was not credible enough for students, school faculty and families to be fearful.
“It’s sad that you don’t just to get to come to school and be a student, that that fear has to creep in your mind,” O’Mara said. “It’s sad that students need to report on things like this. And it’s sad that students say things like this. And it has to be taken at face value every time. And that’s what we do.
“We will take every threat at face value and investigate it immediately, because our main job is to keep kids safe.”
And to keep students safe, everyone has to be involved.
To that point, O’Mara believed all those involved worked admirably during the incident.
“Kids did what they were supposed to do,” O’Mara said. “They heard something, and they told an adult. It worked. Kids saw the reaction. They saw what we did. They were here on campus and saw the importance we put on it, how we handled it. The kids are great. We’re really lucky. We have some amazing students up here that care about each other, our school and our community.”