The recent spate of bomb threats in local public schools has put both parents and school officials on edge. Students, however, seem to be enjoying the confusion, taking time to do “selfies” as they parade into the spring sunshine for an evacuation.
Based on the comments to our websites, there appear to be a wide range of views about who should be held accountable for these instances. Some have been critical of local law enforcement; others have been upset with how school officials have handled the threats; a few people have called for putting “prayer back in school;” many have put the blame on slack parents. “Kids are given no consequences at home, so they think there are none in life,” said one commentator.
This is a difficult issue, almost a perfect storm of public policy, emotions and youthful stupidity. Finger pointing is to be expected.
Let’s break this down for discussion:
• Several dozen high-profile incidents of mass violence on school campuses in recent decades has hyper-sensitized our society to the prospect of children being the victim of carnage in a school. Yet there have been relatively few instances of bombs being detonated on a school campus. The worst such event didn’t happen recently, as some might expect, but rather took place in 1927 when a disgruntled school board member set off an explosion in a school in Michigan that killed 38 elementary students and six adults. Several other bombings at other schools over the years were also done by adults and not students. Mass violence on school campuses has mostly come from firearms, not bombs.
• The reaction by school districts to these incidents of campus violence led to extreme school policies that were wrong-headed. Reports of young children being expelled from school for such things as making a mock pistol with their fingers created a backlash against school officials who overreacted with inane zero-tolerance policies. The image of school officials being unable to distinguish real threats from silliness has tainted all school officials to some extent and undermined parental respect for school leaders in general.
• If some school officials have lost perspective, so too have many parents. Some parents have come to demand that schools solve all of their children’s problems. They expect teachers and school officials to give them personal phone calls about every thing going on at a school; they want to be spoon-fed information rather than making an effort to find out what’s going on themselves. In addition, some communities face serious problems of massive drug use in homes where parents neglect their children’s educational needs. School officials have increasingly pushed back against these pressures and now more openly blame bad parenting for a lack of educational success in public schools. There appears to be a wider gap of trust between parents and school leaders today than in the past.
• If there is a growing trust gap between school leaders and parents, it’s being fed by cultural changes that tend to look for drama in everyday life. Especially here in the South, personal conflict, gossip and drama is celebrated by many adults whose lives seem to revolve around such shallowness. Social media, such as Facebook, has given the drama queens (and kings) of the world a new forum through which to showcase their immaturity.
• Kids, of course, are all about drama. They, too, now have social media through which to cultivate their own adolescent drama before a wide audience. Many of the current bomb threats were undoubtedly copycat productions fed by the social media spotlight.
• While kids may be immature, they aren’t stupid. They see how these kinds of actions yank the chains of those in authority over them — parents and school officials. They see how parents over-react by rushing to schools and acting hysterical both in person and online. And they see how they’re able to manipulate school officials by disrupting class schedules and forcing the adults around them to react.
So the question is, what is the best way to deal with these kinds of situations?
On the one hand, school leaders feel tremendous liability and pressure to always react to any perceived threat, no matter how remote it may be. The safety of school children and employees is paramount, as it should be.
Yet “reacting” is exactly what the purveyors of these events want. So in evacuating at every threat, no matter how remote, schools feed the drama they’re seeking to quell.
Interestingly, the recent bomb threats here were not typical. Most of the time, bomb threats to schools are phoned in; but these local instances were written on bathroom walls.
Law enforcement manuals on these kinds of threats go into great detail about how to evaluate a threat and rank it by seriousness. Perhaps rather than automatically evacuating a school at every threat, a local law enforcement official trained in the psychology of threats should be called in to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis and then advise the school whether or not an evacuation is warranted.
Of course, that takes time and there is a lot of pressure for school officials to act quickly. Still, there may be instances where a quick evacuation would make students less safe than if they were to stay in place inside the school building.
In one national case several years ago, a bomb threat was called in to a school to force an evacuation so that a waiting student-shooter would have his targets outside the building.
Bad things do happen. A few years ago, a student wearing a live bomb walked into Jackson County Comprehensive High School. Fortunately, nobody got hurt, but it was a dangerous situation. And some school districts are infested with gangs that carry out violent attacks on school grounds.
Still, most students are probably in more danger riding in a car on the way to school than they are inside a school building. And the real threats they face in life probably won’t be written on a bathroom wall.
There are no easy answers to any of this. There is no way to make schools 100 percent safe, just as there is no way to make any place 100 percent safe.
We can build tall fences around schools, put in metal detectors, arm the halls with police and never let students outside on playgrounds or athletic fields where those with harmful intent can reach them. But then we would no longer have a school — we would have a prison.
We all have to accept some level of risk every day when we get out of bed and go about our lives. Schools are no different; there will always be risks and there will always be immature kids whose pranks feed on those fears.
Perhaps if we — parents and school leaders — would turn down the volume on the drama that surrounds all of this, it would dissipate from a lack of interest.
When parents act hysterical at every perceived threat no matter how remote, and when schools overreact to kids crying “wolf,” kids will continue to cry “wolf” just to see the drama unfold.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.