At least four threats last week, alleged to be made by Carroll County Public Schools students either in-person or on social media and perceived to be against fellow students or schools, and the subsequent investigations by CCPS and the police, have panicked the community and taxed law enforcement resources. None of these threats was deemed credible, but all had to be investigated. As they should have been.
In the wake of last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, in addition to numerous other incidents at schools such as Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in the two decades since the Columbine tragedy redefined school shootings, every threat needs to be taken seriously. Sheriff Jim DeWees told us that’s exactly how his office takes threats, thoroughly investigating each one. Of course, virtually all will be found to be hoaxes, jokes, misunderstandings or a threat made by someone with no ability to carry it out. Thankfully, as heinous and tragic as they are, school shootings are still rare. Threats are not, however, particularly in the aftermath of a shooting such as the one in Parkland.
It takes time to investigate those threats, with the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office expending resources this week interviewing personnel and students from several different schools. Make no mistake, this is what should happen in these situations, but that doesn’t change the fact that officers who could be in many other places, enforcing laws and potentially saving lives, are instead going through the time-consuming process of tracking down witnesses and talking to kids who may not have understood the consequences of their actions.
That has to stop. A zero-tolerance policy regarding threats needs to be in place and clearly communicated to students and staff with significant and automatic disciplinary measures outlined. How significant? A month of detention? A weeklong suspension? Expulsion? That’s up to the school system to decide, but the punishment needs to be enough to be a real deterrent, certainly not some sort of tiered approach that allows students to threaten others repeatedly with virtual impunity the first or second time.
Currently, CCPS administrative regulations outline a number of potential punishments regarding “serious threats of violence.” The regulations go on to define a serious threat as “a verbal or nonverbal declaration of intent or determination to inflict significant injury … with the perceived ability/intention to carry through on the threat.” That leaves a lot to interpretation and makes it seem as though if the person obviously can’t or wasn’t really planning to “carry through on the threat,” that it is not a given there will be any discipline at all.
Obviously, school punishment would not deter a student intent on evil, such as the student/killers of Columbine infamy. Nor would it deter those who don’t attend the schools they choose to inflict evil upon, such as the Sandy Hook and Parkland killers. (We see no reason to mention the names of the perpetrators.) But a significant zero-tolerance policy might be effective against the kid who thinks it would be funny to make a threat against the school. Or the kid who is angry at another student and alleges a threat was made when it wasn’t. Or the kids who figure they have the right to say anything they want on social media. And the school system needs to reiterate that kids dealing with serious issues — emotional, school, family, problems of any kind — should talk to teachers and/or counselors rather than acting or speaking out in any inappropriate way.
While we certainly hope any and all school threats made in the future are found to be not credible, we want to see these threats end immediately to stop taxing our resources and to ensure that everyone involved continues to give every threat the serious attention that it warrants.