School threats on rise; What’s behind it and what’s being done

Area law enforcement and school authorities are taking a more aggressive approach in dealing with a rise in high-profile school threats that have caused school lockdowns and scared children and families across the region this year.

Records show cases where juveniles face felony charges related to a school threat are on the upswing in Montgomery and Warren counties, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

Experts say social media plays a factor in increased reports of school threats, as does heightened security and student awareness.

“Unfortunately, my peers and I have never known an education culture where violence was not a threat, or something we had to seriously consider,” Fairmont High School United Student Body’s Commissioner of Outreach Bella Roberts said in a statement to the Dayton Daily News for this report.

“Every child in school right now has only known an education system where violence is a reality,” she added. “Most of us are desensitized to it by now, as active shooter drills have been routine since elementary school.”

School shootings — while common in the U.S. — have been rare in the Dayton area. One occurred at Madison High School near Middletown in 2016, wounding two students with non-life-threatening injuries.

Before and since, area educators and law enforcement say they are working together to prevent and respond to such violence.

“I think part of it is the schools and police have a closer working relationship perhaps, especially in these matters because of the numbers of cases they see involving threats, bomb threats, bringing weapons to school and things like that,” Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. said.

“I think there is better communication and more communication because I think the schools see this a lot different than they did, say, a decade ago,” he added.

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

Schools have ramped up their safety emphasis, encouraged students to alert others about possible threats and tightened building security.

Districts also have embraced zero tolerance toward threatening behavior and have forged closer ties to police, including increasing the presence of school resource officers. The SROs now talk with prosecutors more frequently as events warrant, leading to more criminal charges, authorities said.

“We’ve got total cooperation going both directions,” Centerville Police Officer John Davis said of schools. “And it works really well.”

Immediate response key

Police have acted swiftly in dozens of school threats involving weapons — either actual possession or the threat of one — across the Dayton region.

This includes a social media threat at Centerville High School in December that led to a gun being found in a student’s vehicle; a hoax that drew police to Dayton’s Belmont High School; and a note threatening a shooting at the Warren County Career center that prompted a lockdown.

Credible or not, threats are taken seriously and can lead to charges, officials said.

“I think everyone has a right to be concerned,” Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi said. “Because what’s really critical is making sure that if there’s a potential threat, that there’s an immediate response.”

Students are “demonstrating a capacity for violence” and “the culture is more coarse than in past years,” Greene County Prosecutor David Hayes said.

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Whether real or perceived, the looming threat of violence is something students are coping with.

Centerville High School senior and student council President Samuel McLain said in a statement provided through the district that in his experience “the atmosphere of school and education culture hasn’t been impacted in the significant way that you’d expect.”

“Most of us live in a bubble of ‘these threats are scary, but could never happen here.’ For us, the changes in security and administration have often manifested in ways that we see as more of a symbolic step than a significant improvement in security,” McLain said.

“Complicated check-in systems at the door for guests or ALICE drills would do little to stop an active shooter, the former annoying students and the latter unsettling them with the lengths they take to make the ALICE drill seem realistic,” he added. “In fact, the possibility of our teachers being armed left more of a wake of worry among the student body than any anonymous threat has.”

Threat case data

Prevention “is a major focus for the district,” said Kettering City Schools Business Services Director Jeff Johnson in a statement commonly echoed by other school systems.

“Our SROs are always involved when there is a safety and/or security issue in the schools and we look to the (police) to make the decision whether an incident warrants charges against the individual or individuals involved,” he added.

School threats have led to criminal charges in 22 cases this year in Montgomery County Juvenile Court through Oct. 25, records show. That’s four fewer than in all of 2019. Nearly 82% of this year’s filings involved felony charges, about one percent more than three years ago, according to the data.

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Since the start of 2019, 78.2% of all school threat cases filed in that court involved felonies, records show.

Felonies can lead to serious prison terms compared to misdemeanors that are punished with jail time or a fine.

Weapons charges — including blades and guns either threatened or found — have been filed in 66 of the cases since 2017, or about 47% according to that court.

Warren County has also seen more cases and felony cases so far this year than the three previous years, according to court data obtained by the Dayton Daily News.

In Warren County, no weapons charges resulted in any cases since 2019, Warren County Probate-Juvenile Court Administrator Laura Schnecker said.

Of the 55 criminal cases filed between 2019 and 2022 by Warren County, only three were felony convictions, two of which occurred this year, records show.

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“I would say that we are requesting significantly greater sentences and we are starting to see a little bit more openness by the court to do so,” Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said.

In Greene County, nine school threat cases were filed from Sept. 1, 2019 through Nov. 3, 2022, and none were felonies.

Social media impact

Charges in both Montgomery and Warren counties include inducing panic and illegal conveyance of a deadly weapon in school safety zone.

“The schools have much more security measures in place,” Heck said. “So, they’re discovering more guns at schools.”

When considering charges, a student’s age, intent, situation, background and weapon ownership are among a variety of factors weighed, Heck and Capizzi said.

Inducing panic is a common filing for a phone threat or a similar action while the conveyance charge involves possessing or providing weapons, Capizzi said.

Capizzi, a judge since 2004, said he doesn’t think school threats have necessarily increased the past two decades. But he said the popularity of social media has helped publicize them more rapidly and changed the way they are handled.

“I think 20 years ago when nobody had (smart) phones kids still took guns to school, kids still had them in their car and if the administration of the school found out about it, they notified the police and it was dealt with without major publicity,” Capizzi said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

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Greene County’s Hayes expressed similar thoughts. Warren County Career Center Superintendent Joel King said “things have changed for school administrators in the past 10 to 15 years and even more so in the past five years. It’s hard to understand and it’s shocking.”

School threats made on social media have also given police more solid evidence, Centerville’s Davis said.

“They’re leaving us a trail,” Davis said. “Prior to that I think you probably had a lot of he said/she said. Now, with social media they’re leaving us a footprint and … it’s there forever.

“They’re giving us digital evidence that we may not have had before that,” he added.

Early contact

Police often contact prosecutors at earlier stages in investigations than they had previously, helping to clarify what charges may be appropriate and make the process more efficient, said Kelly Madzey, Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office juvenile division chief.

In some instances, “we can walk through” the case with police and be familiar with it early on, Madzey said. In others, they “can be investigated out and maybe handled on the spot,” she added.

Fornshell and Heck both said they have made presentations to students on the issues surrounding violence in schools.

Heck said he has seen through Montgomery County’s violence prevention initiative that anti-gun messages “are mentioned more often now than they ever were” in students’ art and essays.

Students, Davis said, “are engaged now. The kids understand that they’re the first line of defense. I don’t think that happened (in the past) as much as it does now.”

“The kids are coming forward,” he added. “So, the kids are taking control of this in a lot of situations, which is perfect. That’s what we want. That’s what we ask of the public.”


Notable School Threat Incidents in 2022

- In September, active shooters were reported at Belmont High School in Dayton, Catholic Central High School in Springfield and Princeton High School in Hamilton County. All three later were determined to be hoaxes.

- In November 2022, the Montgomery County Prosecutors Office said criminal charges of making false alarms are being sought against a Kettering Fairmont High School student. Officials said the student admitted to making a shooting threat on campus.

- In August, a woman was sentenced to up to five years of community control after pleading guilty to felony charges of attempting to induce panic for leaving a note at Wayne High School in Huber Heights threatening there would be a school shooting.

- In October 2022, a note threatening a shooting at the Warren County Career Center near Lebanon was found in the school’s restroom, prompting a lockdown and the response of more than 25 safety personnel. A 17-year-old was arrested two days later and spent more than a week in the Warren County Juvenile Detention Center before being released on home GPS monitoring. The case remains pending.

- In March 2022, a 9-year-old boy was expelled for a year — “the stiffest penalty possible” — after officials said he admitted to bringing a loaded gun to a Kettering elementary school.

- Two Centerville High School students admitting to felony gun charges on campus were given suspended juvenile sentences and placed on probation in February 2022. The incident happened on Dec. 3, 2021.

SCHOOL THREATS

Montgomery County

Charges filed in school threat cases so far this year, compared to previous full years.

Year Total Felonies

2022 22 18

2021 18 14

2020 12 8

2019 26 21

2018 36 23

2017 27 21

Warren County

Convictions in school threat cases.

Year Total Felonies

2022 18 2

2021 9 0

2020 6 0

2019 17 1

Greene County

Charges filed in school threat cases.

Year Total Felonies

2022 3 0

2021 4 0

2020 1 0

*2019 1 0

*Includes only cases from Sept. 1-Dec. 31

SOURCES: Greene County Juvenile Court, Montgomery County Juvenile Court and Warren County Prosecutor’s Office.

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