Facing The Threat Of Violence And Of Tragedy; A Reality For Schools

By Lynne Beauchamp, lynnethesuntimesnews@gmail.com and Seth Kinker, skinker@thesuntimesnews.com

Schools across the country are faced with serious threats of violence and tragedy. While many of the threats have not been followed through on, in some cases individuals have acted.

The past month has been a taxing time for law enforcement and school officials trying to meet threats head on with full response.

Most are aware of the February 14 school shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that left seventeen dead and several others injured. The aftermath of the shooting again sparked the gun control debate.

That same February week also saw schools across Michigan dealing with tragedy and threats of violence.

Schools in Washtenaw County are seeing an increase in threats, tragedy, and related issues.

In a recent communication from the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), they report responding to nine separate threats in Washtenaw County school districts. The threats range from plans to bomb as school written on bathroom doors to social media posts of mass shooting.  With the increase in school related threats, the impact placed on law enforcement, schools, and the communities that receives the threat – and the time and resources needed to investigate, are a significant and substantial. WCSO asks parents and educators to help communicate to students the severity of “pranks” or social media posts. The possible charges that could result are as follows: False Report of a Threat of Terrorism (20 year felony and/or $20,000); Computers-Using to Commit Crime (10 year and or $10,000); Computers-Internet-Communicating with Another to Commit Crime (Maximum imprisonment of 15 years or more or life).

In addition to these charges there is the possibility of school discipline, including suspension or expulsion.

At a local level, schools and their community are heeding the warning and are working to make school safe for students.

In Saline, Superintendent Scot Graden said the events in Parkland, Florida have raised awareness and concerns in its district but says Saline Schools have not recently faced threats of violence or gone into a school lockdown mode. He added that past issues of threats were dealt with by working with the families involved and investigated by law enforcement.

“I think that we are certainly not immune to it” said Graden. “It’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen compared to if it’s going to happen.”

Graden added that knowing community is key in being proactive and letting students know it is “okay to say” is vital in school safety.

In Dexter, Superintendent Chris Timmis said the district has looked at how other districts are handling the situation at present. While the district has not recently been faced with violent threats, it works closely with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office and will soon be meeting to address regional issues.

Dexter High School sophomore, Rhett Jacobs said he feels his school is a safe place to be, despite what other schools have faced. He said there are occasional fights at the school but teasing among students is more common.

“I get teased because of my red hair,” Jacobs said with a laugh. “But I stay strong…I’m proud.”

In Manchester there have been two incidents involving the school district that caused schools to be closed for the day.

One was a student that had made potentially threatening remarks on social media and another was a result of fake accounts being made with threats being produced on those accounts.

Both incidents occurred outside of school and not during school hours and social media increased awareness but also brought some issues to light. When the first incident occurred the alert system that the district had set up was inconsistent in the messages it sent out, either sporadic or not at all.

As a result, discussion in the community continued on social media until the district was able to get an email out late that night and next day with clarifying information on the issue.

The second incident had more of the same, more discussion happening on social media based on hearsay rather than information released from the district.

The Manchester School District addressed these problems by looking at their communication systems in place as well as the procedures it had in place when incidents like this occur. In addition to addressing the district wide alert system, Interim Superintendent Brad Hamilton has hosted three ‘Coffee with the Superintendent’ sessions to discuss issues.

Chelsea School District has faced a number of issues recently. Last year, the high school presented “Why You Matter” a campaign to help build positive self-images among its student body after suffering three losses in its community.  On February 15, 2018, the district faced another loss to suicide.  The sophomore student was described by Chelsea High School Principal, Mike Kapolka, as “a talented young man with a tremendous amount of spirit and determination.”

“A loss of a child impacts an entire community,” said Chelsea Schools Superintendent, Dr. Julie Helber in a statement shortly after the tragedy. “Our hearts go out to the family first and foremost, but also to the students, staff and community during this time.”

Helber added that each school has support systems in place for those in need during this time.

During the Chelsea Board of Education meeting on February 26 the board reviewed its strategic goals for the academic year; what has been accomplished and what is still being worked on. With student/staff safety and well being a priority, Marcus Kaemming, Executive Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Human Resources with Chelsea School District reported the staff had completed its ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate) training and will use the information provided for its crisis planning.

On February 13, Holt High School in Ingham County went into lockdown mode after the Delhi Division of the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office (ICSO) was notified of written bomb threats on the grout in the women’s bathroom at the school. According to ICSO, law enforcement explosive detection dogs were asked to respond to the school and the school was cleared several hours later. On March 8, ICSO once again responded to a written bomb threat in the women’s bathroom, a female student was identified and a confession was later obtained. ICSO believe this person is also responsible for the February threat, findings are being reported to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office and the student has been suspended. ICSO reported there was no reason to believe that the school was in any danger from either threat.

Also on February 13, Stockbridge Schools’ Superintendent, Karl Heidrich, sent a message to parents warning of information obtained from its technology department of a threat of gun violence toward the Stockbridge JR/SR High School. School and school activities were canceled on February 14 and 15, as a precaution and so an investigation by police could be conducted.  On February 15, Village of Stockbridge Police Chief, John Torres, posted on Facebook that a suspect had been identified and interviewed in the matter which led to an additional person of interest. He added that person had been interviewed during which an admission of guilt was obtained. Chief Torres said no other suspects or persons of interest were believed to exist.  On February 16, Chief Torres followed up with citizens through Facebook stating the accused individual had been arrested and was being lodged in the Ingham County Juvenile Detention Center. In addition, on February 22, Heidrich sent a message to parents warning of a Facebook post from a profile name of Ray Andres that had been circulating the region stating “Yes, SHS is the school that I want.” Heidrich said the post had been reviewed and investigated by police indicating the message is not associated with Stockbridge Schools, has no credibility and has been circulating nationwide.

In March, Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth with ICSO announced its new partnership , “Ingham County Sheriff’s Office Safer School Initiative”.  The new partnership includes Holt, Webberville, Dansville, Mason and Leslie Public Schools and will have an increased police presence at the nineteen school buildings the ICSO is responsible for policing.

March 14 is National School Walkout Day.  For schools that participate, the walkout is to bring awareness to gun violence in schools and neighborhoods and a call for federal gun reform legislation*. The walkout is to take place at 10am, nationally in every time zone and last 17 minutes, 1 minute for every life lost in the Parkland, Florida shooting.

*information obtained from Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, www.actionnetwork.org

Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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