Mark Kaercher wasn’t asking much. The eighth-grade math teacher wanted his pupils to understand algebra. He wanted the school math competition to run smoothly. He wanted to go to the bathroom in private.
Reasonable expectations any other time, but lofty goals this spring at Newport Middle High School in Newport, N.H.
That’s because bomb threats–all of them pranks–shut down the school of 750 children in grades 6-12 for several weeks in March. Learning was not just disrupted, it stopped.
Children saturated with media images of school shootings were afraid to go to class. Pupils in wheelchairs waited hours in the cold along the side of the road while police searched the school. Homework, tests, and meetings were missed.
And Kaercher’s privacy? Wishful thinking. Some of the threats were scrawled on stall dividers in the boys’ bathrooms. The walls came down, in part to serve as evidence in the investigation, but also to deter others from repeating the prank.
“For a while every time I came on the intercom there was apprehension,” said Larry Wight, the school’s principal. “They got to the point where as soon as I came on, they were halfway out the door. Then we’d watch the clocks and say, ‘Gee, we made it to 8:30 a.m. today.'”
Across the country since Columbine, similar scenes have played out–many less disruptive, some worse.
School violence may be on the decline, but communities everywhere are struggling with an elusive offshoot: baseless threats by students seeking to break up classes and get attention or just a laugh.
But educators whose schools have been paralyzed by threats do not see the humor as they tally the classes missed and the thousands of dollars spent treating each incident as another potential bloody rampage.
It is not known how many phony threats schools deal with annually; few states track them. The U.S. Department of Education is surveying 3,000 public schools, but results won’t be available until later this year.
“Some schools are having multiple bomb scares, one after the other after the other,” said Kevin Dwyer, a senior adviser on children for the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va. “It almost is to the point where the community can’t function.”
Park Dietz, a threat assessment expert who has consulted on numerous criminal cases, including those of “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski and the California “Zodiac” murders, said school shootings are regularly followed by a surge in pranks.
“We learned this in a very costly way in the early and mid-80s during the product tampering threat epidemic,” Dietz said. “It was actually quantified that each nationally publicized incident produced 30 more copycat crimes.”
One week after 15 people were killed in shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, schools in Pennsylvania logged more than 95 copycat threats.
Though threats have been around probably as long as children have been frustrated with teachers and tests, treating them as portents of a massacre is a phenomenon that emerged in the last decade.
This is the post-Columbine era, and parents and schools fear the threat they do not take seriously. And even the pranks have their costs.
“It puts people on an emotional roller coaster,” said Nathan Greenberg, superintendent of schools in Londonderry, N.H. His schools were closed for nearly a week last year because of threats.
“People are thinking, ‘Am I going to have a full day of school today? Am I going to get sent home? Is something else going to happen today?’ rather than concentrating on their main mission, which is teaching or learning,” he said.
The financial cost of threats also can be staggering. Greenberg said last fall’s pranks cost his district more than $72,000. Large school districts have spent far more. In Milwaukee, for example, officials estimate phony threats cost the district a quarter of a million dollars in 1999.
School solutions to the problem include backpack bans, locker searches, and metal detectors, as well as zero tolerance policies calling for swift punishment of the kids who make the threats.
Lawmakers around the country are considering measures to toughen penalties. In Michigan, lawmakers passed a law in 1999 requiring the expulsion of any pupil who verbally threatens another person.
And President Bush’s budget proposal for 2002 requires schools to enact zero tolerance policies regarding violent or disruptive students. Schools that do not have such rules would forfeit federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools money.
Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in West Lake Village, Calif., said harsh punishment can be an important part of an overall strategy.
“You don’t want to sound too draconian here, but all it takes frequently is a few good prosecutions to extinguish this disruptive behavior,” he said.
That has not been Jim Whealon’s experience. As superintendent of schools in Anaconda, Mont., he tried zero tolerance. Threats this year were still so frequent that officials lost count.
“Zero tolerance was the initial political answer,” he said. “One answer doesn’t fit all situations. The one answer gets you into trouble pretty quickly.”
Some experts warn that punishment that is too harsh can be counterproductive. Larry Ankrom, chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, said children will not tell on other students if they think their classmates will be treated unfairly.
According to Ankrom, who helped formulate an FBI model for assessing threats by pupils, schools need two things: a team approach that involves the entire school community, and a plan that involves assessing threats, not reacting to them.
He said that in every case of a school threat or violent act, there is some level of so-called leakage–pupils talking, bragging, or hinting about what they are planning.
So the key to stopping threats is to develop trust between children and adults in the school so students speak up when they hear something.
“For the kids who call in bomb scares, it is extremely reinforcing for the kids to get the laughter and the praise from his or her buddies,” Dwyer said. “It is very, very important for schools to work with their kids and get them to say, ‘Enough is enough, already.'”
The other side of handling the problem is recognizing that not all threats are equal, nor should they be handled the same way.
“The more often you evacuate, the more bomb threats you get,” said Dietz, president of a Newport Beach, Calif.-based Threat Assessment Group. “And out of 1,500 bomb threats, there probably won’t be one where there is a device that could hurt anyone.”
Dietz’s company teaches businesses how to assess and handle threats.
The FBI’s assessment model, which was made available to schools online in September, lists factors to consider in sizing up the seriousness of a threat. They include the threat’s level of detail, whether it is emotionally charged, the personality of the person making the threat (if known), and the social atmosphere in the school.
A lack of detail, a joking manner, or other factors can indicate a lack of serious intent.
In Newport, where the bathroom stalls came down and classes were cancelled for several weeks, the principal changed his tactics after the sixth threat.
When the next threat came in, the pupils were not sent home. Instead, they headed to nearby churches and businesses that donated temporary class space.
Wight’s ultimate weapon was Saturday classes. Suddenly, no more threats. “The incentive for whoever was going to do this mischief wasn’t there any more,” he said.
FBI’s “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective”: