Swift action crucial in calming fears after school threats, officials say

Northmont's  High School features a two-story atrium area that serves as the center of the school an is aptly named Thunderbolt Way. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

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Northmont's High School features a two-story atrium area that serves as the center of the school an is aptly named Thunderbolt Way. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Northmont case an example of fast rumors, initial worry, good communication

Local and state officials are encouraging swift action by schools and police anytime there is a school threat, calling it the crucial factor in both quelling fears and ensuring the safety of students and staff.

Threats of mass violence, none of which have been acted upon, have hit close to a dozen area school districts in the 10 days since a fatal Michigan school shooting, disrupting educational work and putting students, families and school staff on edge.

The hardest part is those initial minutes or hours, when a threat is noticed and spreads like wildfire on social media, while school and police officials are still trying to nail down the facts.

Anatomy of an incident

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, Northmont schools posted on their Facebook page that police were investigating “the Snapchat photos that are circulating” and said so far, police did not believe there was a threat to Northmont.

The nearly 200 responses from parents, many already at work, ran the gamut — people weighing taking their kids home, thank-yous for involving police, accusations of causing more panic where it wasn’t warranted, and from many families who hadn’t seen the photos, demands for more information about what in the world was going on.

The post included a photo of a gun with a reference that the school day would be crazy. Northmont spokeswoman Jenny Wood later said the photo was originally shared by a middle school student.

Just over an hour later, Wood did a Facebook Live video addressing the situation, stating that the student in question had been speaking with law enforcement and that police were “not concerned at this point” about an actual threat to the schools.

Several parents of Northmont students commented on the video, with multiple thanking the district for the live update.

“Thank you Northmont City Schools for keeping our kids safe and calm,” read one comment. “Raising kids in a social media centered world is scary.”

How to handle threats

Wood said she regularly does Facebook Live videos to address parents and students directly and said families appreciate the communication.

“I do a live “Lightning Flash” every Friday throughout the school year and they’re used to seeing my face and hearing my voice,” she said. “We think that relationship really helps bring a voice of calm when an issue comes up. There are a number of things we cannot share regarding ongoing investigations, discipline, etc., but they tend to appreciate what we are able to share.”

According to the Ohio School Safety Center (OSSC), which is housed within Ohio Homeland Security, all schools within the state of Ohio are required to develop and adopt a comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (EMP).

“When a school is made aware of a threat from a student, anonymous reporting system, or other means, they typically immediately contact local law enforcement to start an investigation,” said Emily Torek, administrator of the OSSC. “In addition to this, schools may use their existing threat assessment teams to evaluate the information provided for assessment and intervention.”

Threat assessment teams are typically made up of school counselors, school resource officers, and administrators that look at the totality of circumstances and students involved to determine whether or not the student has the intent to commit the harms and the means to carry it out, Torek said.

“Law enforcement does a similar calculation when they conduct an investigation and can assist with determining the source of a post through investigation of open source social media and interviews,” she added. “Building strong partnerships with first responders is essential for addressing these types of threats.”

Schools around the nation were faced with another threat of violence Friday, as a TikTok post promoted “National Shoot Up Your School Day.”

Huber Heights City Schools issued a statement to families Thursday to get ahead of it.

“While we do not believe the threat to be credible, we are taking it seriously and closely monitoring the situation,” Huber Heights officials said. “This situation serves as a good example of why it is important to avoid sharing posts online that refer to school safety threats. Even if they are not credible threats, they can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety for our students, families, and staff.”

Instead, Superintendent Mario Basora is asking students and parents to use Ohio’s Stay Safe, Speak Up hotline anytime they believe there is a credible threat of harm to their school.

The 1-866-listen2me (1-866-547-8362) phone system is for students and parents to report concerns, including but not limited to bullying, abuse, bomb threats, cyber crimes, discrimination, drugs, mental health concerns, suspicious behavior, vandalism, fighting and weapons.

Wood said Northmont makes an effort to respond to any potential threat immediately, as rumors and misinformation can spread quickly.

“We always involve law enforcement and administration from the beginning of any event. We have school resource officers (SROs) on-site in our high school and middle school all day, every day. Our elementary buildings also have SROs,” she said. “I can’t say enough about the rapid response and our partnership with our local law enforcement community.”

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