Researcher: Better response needed to school threats

Ninth-grader Catherine Smart stands outside of Central High School
A student stands outside of a high school building in St. Paul before hundreds of students march to the State Capitol to protest school shootings in March 2018. Several Minnesota schools closed Friday in response to an anonymous threat on social media that warned of possible school violence.
Evan Frost | MPR News file 2018

Threats of school violence are becoming overwhelming for school officials this year, according to a researcher who monitors threats.

“We have just seen an exponential increase this school year. And then particularly after the school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, it's just unbelievable,” said James Densley, co-founder of the Violence Project.

“We're seeing hundreds of threats a day now, and most of it is just hoaxes that there's no need to respond to, but at the same time that's a lot of information to have to manage. And school officials at the moment are just pulling their hair out. They don't know what to do with all this information,” he said.

Some schools in Minnesota closed Friday in response to an anonymous threat on TikTok that warned of possible violence against students across the country.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety said in a statement that law enforcement agencies across the state had reported 29 threats to schools in Minnesota with nearly half of those threats coming in the last 24 hours. The agency said it is unaware of any credible or a specific threat to schools in Minnesota.

Hopkins West Junior High Principal Leanne Kampfe said there were extra police patrols in the area in response to the unspecified threat, but she said “it feels like we’ve been in this space forever" and Friday didn’t feel different than another school day.

“One of the staff members alluded to that in the check in that any day could be that day,” she said. “It could be today. But I think the fact that that's even possible to say, that any day could be that day, is actually the problem, more than there being a TikTok challenge today.”

Schools are in a very difficult position said Densley, who is also a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. If they overreact to threats, it sends a message that students can disrupt school with anonymous threats. But if they ignore threats and violence happens, they face recrimination for not responding adequately.

Densley said some schools and law enforcement agencies have the resources to monitor and assess threats, but others have limited resources and might decide to just close their buildings in response to uncertain threats.

“It's a massive challenge that schools and communities are facing at the moment because there's no real standardized playbook for how to respond to an anonymous social media threat of violence,” Densley said. “And because all schooling and all policing are local, you get very localized responses.”

Law enforcement agencies are trying build infrastructure to monitor threats, including tip lines and apps like the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s “See It, Say It, Send It” app unveiled earlier this year. The app allows users to send tips about threats of violence to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Local law enforcement agencies also have text or call tip lines.

“It's all very well having the anonymous tip line, but you need somebody manning it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Densley. “And then you also need people who are able to respond to those threats appropriately. And so this is where it gets really challenging.”

The Violence Project recently surveyed threat assessment experts, said Densley, sending them two fictitious school threats.

“And we found that the answers were all over the place, that some professionals were saying, ‘Well, this seems like a credible threat, and I would shut the school down’. And then somebody else would interpret that exact same threat differently,” he said.

Densley said the response to school threats can have significant economic, social and cultural impact, and the issue should have a more coherent response.

“What we really need is a nationally funded mandate for crisis response and threat assessment in all schools and all communities so that we can manage the threats better, and really address them appropriately,” he said.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman contributed to this report.

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