Government & Politics

Do our schools take threats seriously enough?

Raytown Superintendent Allen Markley was working on his house last Sunday afternoon when his wife, hanging out on Facebook, yelled that someone was threatening one of his schools with violence.

Among parents and students, the threat "was already raging like a wild fire on social media," Markley said. Raytown police and the FBI were working the case.

Markley immediately began a threat assessment using a checklist in place at the district for years. Hours later police, working with district leaders, identified the middle school girl who had posted a photo of guns and threatened violence. Police visited her home and found she did not have weapons. She wanted a day off from school.

In the days following the Valentine's Day shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school — where 17 students and teachers were killed — threats against schools across the country have soared from about 10 a day before the shooting to 70 a day, the Ohio-based Educator's School Safety Network says.

The increase — the Kansas City area has been hit with a surge, too — has law enforcement officials and schools scrambling to handle them and reviewing whether their responses are adequate.

In the past week, Kansas City police have investigated two school shooting threats. In both incidents, officers tracked down and spoke to the persons who made the threats, Police Chief Rick Smith said in a blog post.

In another case just last Thursday, students involved in a "beef" brought an AR-15 rifle into Lee's Summit High School.

School officials and police know they must stymie threats that can turn deadly. After the Parkland shooting, it was revealed that several reports had been made to law enforcement about accused shooter Nickolas Cruz, indicating that he was troubled, dangerous and a school shooter in the making. But they were not followed up on.

As part of the fallout, the country is debating the merits and pitfalls of arming teachers, while students once again go through active shooter drills.

"Lock the door, get down, stay away from the window," 18-year-old Jawon Jones, a senior at Center High School, recited during a recent discussion about school safety with several school mates.

The Raytown school district student was arrested and referred to juvenile authorities. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said consequences could be serious for a teen suspect if they end up certified to face charges as an adult. A threat charge could rise to the level of felony.

“This is pretty serious now,” Baker said. “You can’t look at these as a kid wanting to get out of his math test. It causes such a horrible reaction and terror among people and we have to address those pretty seriously.”

How schools respond

Metro area school officials in Missouri and Kansas are adamant: They have been taking threats of school violence seriously and acting against them immediately for 20 years.

"We investigate every single threat report that we get," Markley said,

Step one: "Notify police immediately," Markely said. "Every time we get a threat, we assume it is real until we find out differently."

Step two is then trying to find out how real the threat is.

Schools here follow a quick assessment to determine if the threat is high, low or moderate. Does the person have means to carry it out?

"A kid in an argument on the playground saying, 'I'm so mad I could hurt someone,' is a lot lower level threat than someone scrawling on the bathroom wall of the school that they plan to come back and shoot everyone," Markley said.

If school is in session while the threat investigation is under way, "we go into an immediate soft lock down — everyone in their classroom, all the doors are locked," Markley said.

The lock down is intensified if the threat level rises. Teachers are in contact through the 750 radios used in the Raytown district, robo-calls are made and email notifications are sent to parents.

Checking out threats takes time, energy and money, all of which can be burdensome for administrators who want to focus on learning.

Administrators also spend hours and hours creating plans to deal with attacks. The plans are both tricky and costly, and are constantly revised.

Districts throughout the area have such plans in place and have spent thousands of dollars equipping schools with security and training teachers and staff.

Many are reluctant to go deeply into specifics because they don't want to provide key details to potential intruders. Eight out of 10 intruders or active shooters are students or former students, Markley said.

But in light of concerns about whether they're doing enough, some are willing to reveal more about their security measures.

For one, they are "never satisfied" with their safety measures, said Raytown assistant superintendent Travis Hux. "Every day when I get to work I'm thinking about safety," Hux said.

His district has invested in a long list of security measures, including surveillance cameras throughout buildings. Police can view live video feeds from the cameras on computers in their vehicles the minute their cruiser pulls into the school parking lot.

An officer could see an intruder moving through hallways and know exactly where in the building he is, Hux said.

Classrooms are equipped with panic buttons connected to the police. Recently the district purchased more than 1,000 door barricade devices that will prevent a door from being forced open even if the lock is shot off. Teachers and staff are trained and retrained every year in what to do in case an active shooter is prowling the school halls.

On the day of the Parkland shooting, John Douglass, the director of safety and security for the Shawnee Mission School District and chief of the district's police force, turned on a big screen TV in his office meant for such occasions and began studying media footage for information about why the shooter had been successful.

He and his team do that after every major shooting event, Douglass said. The Las Vegas shooting, for example, taught the district to consider the impact of a long-range shooter.

"They are like a flu virus — they mutate every single time," Douglass told parents at a school board meeting last Monday.

The average high school isn't built to be a "fortress," Douglass said, and has about 43 doors. In Shawnee Mission, a camera and alarm system tells district police when doors are open, who is requesting access through the main entrance, and whether a door is being propped open. Aides scan visitor's IDs to make sure they are not on sexual offender or drug seller databases.

Since the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., many newer schools in the Kansas City area were built to include single point entry into an isolated, often glass enclosed, foyer. Some older schools have been retrofitted to add a similar entrance concept.

Douglass said he and his team have thwarted three narrow misses of active shooting situations since he began, and addressed three or four times as many threats where the perpetrator didn't have the will or the resources to carry out a plan.

In each of the narrow misses, a student or adult had reported threatening behavior or comments to school officials.

He pointed to an incident three years ago in which a high school student threatened to harm students in text messages. Students reported his comments to police, so when the high schooler was seen on cameras walking around the exterior of his school and probing doors, Douglass and his team were on high alert.

His officers caught up with the student swiftly, and though he was not armed at the time, a search warrant later revealed that he had firearms in his bedroom.

Social media's role

According to the Educator's School Safety Network, more than half the threats since the Parkland shooting have appeared on social media.

Educators and police say they see social media as a curse and a blessing. While threats launch on social media and explode there, online posts also quickly come to the attention of police and school officials. If not for social media Markley might not have known so quickly about the threat against his schools.

Also because of social media, schools have to be quicker about contacting students' families, and police quick with reports to the community.

The school safety network said that even before the rise of social media, it wasn't uncommon in the wake of a high profile shooting for the number of threats, reports of suspicious behavior and fear and concern from school communities to spike.

One Shawnee Mission school official compared the phenomenon to the aftershocks of an earthquake.

Normally, though, it dies down after about a week. That hasn't happened this time.

"We know that after an event an uptick in threats is expected but it's not expected at this level and this intensity and that it would continue for this long." said Amy Klinger, director of programs for the safety network.

The network, which has tracked threats and incidents of school violence for nearly a decade, has found that most threats are hoaxes, done only in sport and hoping to disrupt schools.

But some threats fall onto the continuum of a potential shooter who is shaping a plan, said Amanda Klinger, director of operations for the network and Amy Klinger's daughter.

Quickly separating a hoax from a real threat, she said, can be “incredibly difficult.”

In 2017, the FBI’s public tip line received more than 766,000 calls, an average of about 2,100 calls each day about potential public safety threats.

Police encourage citizens to report any suspicious activity.

“If they see something that doesn’t seem right, they see something on social media they are reporting it," said Bridget Patton, spokeswoman for the FBI office in Kansas City.

What students are saying

At the recent discussion with The Star at Center High School about school safety, a panel of students stressed that they trust the adults in their schools to have policies, protocols and training that will protect them.

They instead wanted to focus on cultural change regarding guns, where the entire community surrounding the school is a safe space so there would be no need for metal detectors at the front doors like there are at some Kansas City public high schools, or armed security guards and police like there are at other schools in the area.

Teenage survivors of the Florida shooting are calling on politicians to stand with them in support of reducing the availability of assault weapons and establishing an age limit for buying an AR-15 type long-gun, like the one legally purchased by the 19-year-old killer at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

"I think it is phenomenal that kids, young adults, in Florida are bold enough to stand up for something they believe in," said Rhonya Crawford, an 18-year-old senior at Center. "I think they are very strong. I think they are our leaders for the future. "

Crawford said she believes students across the country have been so quick to support the gun control cause because "we relate to them. They are in Florida and we are here in Missouri but we are high school students and we share the same experience."

Julian Kiwinda, another 18-year-old Center senior, said he was not surprised to see his peers in Florida and around the country take a stand. Their lives are on the line, he said.

"This latest turn of events has been allowing our generation to show that we are more than just kids without a voice, that we are the next generation of leaders and thinkers and people who will stand up for what is morally right over what is politically expedient."

While school districts in the Kansas City area have said they do not take a position on gun control, they have made school safety their top priority, "because if students don't come to school and feel positive about their climate and environment then learning can't begin," said Sharon Ahuna, Center High School principal.

It's also why National Education Association leaders in Missouri and Kansas say they do not want to see teachers packing firearms in schools.

"We are trained to teach and law enforcement officers are trained to carry and use firearms," said Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas NEA. "Let us do what we are trained to do and let law enforcement do what they are trained to do."

Still, school officials said they support their students who plan to participate in the National Walkout days, during which students, teachers and administrators are being asked to leave school to protest gun violence.

One event is planned by the Women’s March’s Youth EMPOWER group for March 14, beginning at 10 a.m. The plan is to stay out at least 17 minutes, one for each victim of the Parkland shooting. Another event is set for April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shootings.

On March 24 Parkland students have organized the "March for Our Lives" in Washington, D.C. A similar march is planned for Kansas City that day.

Kelly Wachel, a spokeswoman for the Center District, said she was happy to know that students trust they will be safe:

"We want them to feel joy, and to know that we got their backs."