Daily Reporter staff reports
HANCOCK COUNTY — Hancock County parents aren’t immediately notified when a threat is made at a local school — until that threat is deemed credible.
What constitutes a credible threat — triggering parent notification, evacuation or closing school altogether — is on the minds of educators across the state this week after several area school canceled classes amid threats of violence.
School administrators said every threat is taken seriously; but they don’t want to spread misinformation or panic parents unnecessarily about their children’s safety. Often, they said, they work with law enforcement to investigate the situation and resolve it first before sending mass alerts home.
On Thursday, schools in Plainfield and Danville closed after threats emerged on social media; two Danville students were arrested Thursday morning. Meanwhile, police continued to search for a Facebook poster who threatened a “bloodbath” at Plainfield High School.
Though those incidents were reported two counties away, local administrators recognize they need to be prepared should a similar scenario happen in their districts.
When administrators learn of a threat at any school, they always take them seriously, officials said. The schools have policies in place for dealing with threats, but there’s no one plan that fits all scenarios, nor are administrators willing to detail those plans out of concern for student safety.
For example, a bomb threat might lead to the entire school being evacuated, like other county schools have done in the past, but if a student threatens to bring a gun to school, evacuating students might not be the best solution, said Steve Satterly, safety director at New Palestine High School.
“When you have a cookie-cutter approach, people learn to manipulate the system,” Satterly said. “We address each situation differently with law enforcement and administrators to determine what steps we need to take to keep students safe.”
Schools’ approaches for informing parents of threats at their children’s schools vary. Administrators want to be sure they’re only sending out verified information to parents, which sometimes means parents don’t receive notification of a threat until after it’s been vetted and resolved, Satterly said.
One exception to the rule is if students need to be evacuated from the building. In that case, parents are typically notified promptly that the school is being evacuated, Satterly said.
When threats are detected, school officials notify the school’s safety resource officer, who is stationed on campus, and other law enforcement when necessary, said Dan Jack, principal at Greenfield Central Junior High.
Police work with teachers and administrators to determine what actions need to be taken. The first step? Determining if the threat is credible or not.
“That’s the $10,000 question,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Rasche, the head of the department’s investigations unit.
Threats or even suspicious behavior have to be treated with the utmost seriousness, and teachers, students and community members have to be vigilant, Rasche said.
Rasche cited the mass shooting at Columbine High School as an example. The shooters involved, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, acted suspiciously prior to killing 24 of their classmates and teachers, but police learned about their demeanor only after the massacre had taken place, Rasche said.
Social media has added a degree of complexity to threat assessment, Jack said. Administrators at other schools echoed those sentiments, saying sometimes students post what they’re feeling without giving second thought to how their messages could be interpreted.
They think simply deleting a post means it’s deleted forever, without realizing the red flags that have already gone up, Satterly said.
Most schools don’t have the resources to monitor the social media accounts of all students. They depend on tips from fellow students, parents and the public, Jack said.
“If we notice something that’s threatening, of course, we’ll react, but it’s really tough to track everything,” he said.
Social media also can be a breeding ground for wrong information, Satterly said. Often, students or parents learn of a threat and post about it on social media, which can incite panic or disclose where students have been taken during a threat, which could compromise their safety, officials said.
Satterly encourages parents to call the school if they have questions about a threat at school instead of depending on social media for information.
“Don’t take it as gospel. Check with the school and verify before you act,” he said.
Investigations surrounding threats are time-consuming, and the person accused of making the threat can be prosecuted, no matter their age, Rasche said. If the suspect is a student, police look carefully into their home and school lives when determining the seriousness of the criminal charges that need to be pressed.
If a child threatened to bring a gun to school, but had no access to such a weapon, investigators might choose to act differently than if the child could have gotten their hands on a gun, Rasche cited as an example.
Most crimes committed by children are handled by the probation department, but certain allegations could land a child in adult court, Rasche said. If officials find a child has been experimenting with bomb-making, that would warrant more severe charges, he said.
No matter what happens in a criminal investigation, a child who threatens to violently harm other students will likely be expelled from the school, Rasche said.