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Sunday Mornings with Rania: What to do When Schools are Threatened

Rania Mankarious
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Sunday Mornings with RaniaOver the last week and a half, I have been inundated with calls from parents concerned about student-made threats at a local elementary and high school. Parents caught wind and fear escalated so quickly that both campuses had days with significant numbers of students absent. 

The uproar of it all led me to once again dive into what we, as a community, can do in the face of real or perceived threats and how we deal with minors who raise red flags while still operating in the “pre-criminal space.” How do we handle the moments before danger strikes? This time, in addition to looking at the students, I was able to focus on school administrators and to talk to them about how and why they do what they do. I spoke to elected officials and local police and, again, learned so much, I had to share it with you. Parents, please take a moment to share what I learned.

Talk to Your Child.

Talk to your children all the time about the need to honestly share concerns with you.   

What Do We Want Kids to Share?

Their observations and concerns. What have they witnessed first-hand and what are their gut feelings? What is the student in question saying, gesturing and/or posting on social media that has many uncomfortable? Has their behavior changed or escalated? These are critical things for the student body to be aware of. As the Mental Health Group of West Michigan has so accurately pointed out, we need kids who “notice.”

Please note: many parents will ask their kids to stay away from a questionable student but how do we make sure we don’t vilify and further isolate a student on the edge? We have to handle these situations so carefully. Further isolating a certain type of child with questionable behaviors may push that student to take negative action they may not have taken otherwise. Communities should come together to discuss this. 

What is a Threat?

For the purposes of this article, I’m focused on threats pertaining to life and death on a school campus. I’m not talking about cursing or bullying. I’m looking at legal assault, which is defined as intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing body injury to another person, threatening another person with imminent bodily harm or physical contact with another person. (TX Penal Code §22.01). I’m looking at a terroristic threat, a threat to commit violence against a person or property with intent to cause a reaction of any type by an official or volunteer agency organized to deal with emergencies, places any person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury; prevents or interrupts the occupation or use of a building, room, place of assembly or place to which the public has access, or places the public or a substantial group of the public in fear of serious bodily injury. (TX Penal Code §22.07)

With all this in mind, what types of statements rise to the level of being legally threatening? A statement like “I’m going to stab you” is different from “I’m going to stab you with a knife.” School administration perceive the latter statement as a threat because an actual weapon was identified; the prior statement may be “too vague” to be construed as a threat. It may require discipline but it’s not a threat. A comment like “I’m going to shoot everything up” by a student may also not be considered a threat because it doesn’t specifically say who or what “everything” is and some will argue that we cannot assume this means the school or student body. Quite perplexing.

What I learned, in an area of grey, where students in the pre-criminal space continually make gestures and comments that are of concern to students and parents, the school administrators must live in a world of black and white, making decisions based on actual words and literal actions, where privacy laws block communication and where they don’t want things to escalate amongst their parents so information is kept hidden. This too, is not good and something I’m identifying that parents can and should work with school board and administrators to thoughtfully change. 

Remember, Rumors don’t Count.

School administrators have a tough job. They must operate in the facts. They cannot do anything with what you heard happened to another child on campus or what text you believe another student sent to group of people you don’t know. True or not, administrators can only act on incidents actually perceived by you or your child. I don’t fault administrators for this. The student body is filled with children who, by nature, gossip.

I’m thankful administrators focus on true witness accounts. That said, those who have observed a threatening comment, gesture or statement have an even greater duty to report since their accounts matter most.  

How to Report?

Parents - and please know, I include myself in this category - we cannot become hysterical. We cannot. Once you and/or your child have witnessed something, officially report it. Do not be afraid. Please. There isn’t a school in our community that doesn’t have anonymous reporting options. Write an email and send it to the school principal. You may also want to cc the vice principal and school counselor.

Also, students, most principals and teachers have created unique ways to anonymously report while you’re on campus. Find out what those options are, please. Crime Stoppers is active in most schools but even if we are not in your school, you can always call us anonymously at 713-222-TIPS to report. A good suggestion - talk to your principals at the start of the year about how they handle reports and the techniques they use to protect the information of the reporter. If you’ve found a system like that does not exist, help create one. It’s time for parents to get involved in these issues. 

Then What?

Every administrator who receives a report of a threat will respond. But how? That’s what we don’t always know. Learn your school’s protocols for handling threats. If you don’t know what they are, ask. Do they check backpacks? Do they call parents? Just keep in mind, because we are dealing with minors, their privacy trumps your desire for your child’s safety. Even if a student has made a specific threat against your child, most school administrators will never tell you how they investigated or handled the threat because it’s deemed to breach the privacy of the child who threatened. You will not know, you will never know. You have no choice but to trust your administrators. This is difficult for every single parent I have talked to, but it is the case in a majority of school environment.

Parents: in today’s age, we can look at legislation that might loosen this up a bit. Where an actual threat has been made, can we argue that parents whose children were targeted have a right to know what the actual outcome of the investigation was?  

What We Can and Should All Do: 

  • Get involved. Are you on the PTA, a room parent, do you go to school board meetings? Have you read the handbook? 
  • Send positive vibes to the student making threats. This is a child, this is a child who is hurting or struggling with significant issues. If we are able, reach out to their family or community. While we cannot and will not ignore or condone violent language or behavior, we cannot crucify these students either. Can the community come together to provide a solution that benefits a student who threatens while protecting everyone else? I have been working on this for one year and it is difficult, but I still believe it can be done. 
  • Don’t get hysterical; don’t fuel the rumors.
  • Make sure true reports are shared with administrators. 
  • Be consistent yet committed to supporting your administrators. We will get more done by working together, I promise you. 

Administrator and student rights: 

To all our wonderful teachers, principals, school board members, superintendents and more, first, we thank you, immeasurably, for taking care of our children and doing what you believe, perceive and have studied to be the best for both the student body and your campuses. We appreciate your long hours, endless reports and the red tape you navigate through. And especially, teachers, you love our kids and we know that; in the threats we studied the last week, I had one fifth-grade teacher look me in the eye and say: If it came down to it, I would take a bullet for any child at the school. It broke my heart. 

We don’t think the world is a bad place and all students are out to hurt our children. We know that, at times, our own children cause problems. But we also know that times have changed and that there are more significant issues facing the school community, students who truly threaten, students who are not just suicidal but also homicidal. We know students have mental health issues, emotional health issues, anxiety and many other things they face. We know that times have changed and weapons come easily in many forms, no matter where you live. We know that unlike banks or airports, schools are soft targets. 

We know that we cannot isolate and vilify any student, that even those who make threats, need our support and assistance. We know this. 

We also hope you know that we want information. We want to know what’s going on in our schools. You don’t have to share names but generally speaking, we want to know what’s taking place in all grades in the campus we send our kids to and how you dealt with it or even that you were aware of it. We want information because by sharing, rumors are crushed and we feel that the community is on the same page. We also want meaningful security. We don’t think security means you are doing a bad job at keeping our kids safe but rather that we are all aware that times have changed, and security is needed to keep everyone safe. 

Legalities

Very honestly, the problems persist but we are unsure how they are being addressed. A year ago this week, the Parkland shooter walked into Stoneman Douglas High School to carry out “one of the worst shootings in US history,” a phrase that now seems to follow each shooting. While we get more educated and “prepared” the fatalities continue. He was able to kill 17 students and staff members, injuring 17 others after weeks of students saying something about their concern; after months of threats; after he received discipline for profanity, disobedience, insubordination and disruption; after he was transferred six times in three years and finally at the point where he could no longer legally be expelled from because under federal law, this boy had the “right to a ‘free and appropriate’ education at a public school near him.” But here’s my question - that “right” meant that students went to school with their lives literally at risk; his “right to free education in a district near him” trumped the “right to life” for 17 others. This does not equate in my books.

In the post 9-11 world, I do not have the right to scream “bomb” on an airplane - the words alone would ground the plane, force everyone off, get me arrested and keep me from getting on another flight. I recognize that flying is not the same right as education but there’s something to be said for the manner in which threats in both scenarios are dealt with. Should we be re-examining the rights and options for students who truly threaten the school or students within? Legally, these threats range from a Class B misdemeanor to a third-degree felony but what does it all really mean? We must re-examine this issue. And yes, these will be truly difficult waters to navigate but myself and many other parents would sit through arduous hours of discussions and analysis to help districts come up with fair answers. Because at the end of the day, we don’t want anyone hurt - not the student making the threats nor our own children. 

We Can Do This

As we navigate these difficult times, we all need to roll our sleeves up and get to work. If we have a unified, calm, yet consistent voice with a meaningful approach, maybe we can create meaningful change that protects all? Who does not want this in today’s world? As for the incidents that hit two schools a week and a half ago, we send our sincerest thanks to the administrators, the law enforcement who showed up and just “sat outside” because they couldn’t bring themselves to leave, to the parents who are trying to speak up, to the hero students who are reporting and to communities who value the lives of every student in the classroom, including the one causing threats. We want them all safe, happy and healthy and will do whatever it takes to get there. Together. 

Read past Sundays with Rania posts here. Find more information on Crime Stoppers of Houston on their website or follow them on Facebook. Have topics in mind that you’d like Rania to write about? Comment below or email her at rmankarious@crime-stoppers.org. Rania is co-host of a weekly podcast which features interesting local and national guests who used their platforms for the good of the community. Connect with Rania on Instagram and Twitter

Editor's Note: Views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Buzz Magazines.

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