Threats of violence in schools are nothing new, but the Feb. 14 slaying of 17 at a high school in Parkland, Fla. seemingly sparked a nationwide resurgence of terroristic threats being uttered by students, including some in Bulloch County.
Since the Parkland shooting, where troubled and expelled former student Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, four local public school students and a university student have been charged with either making threats of violence or falsely reporting such threats. None of them had weapons.
Just two weeks after the Parkland shootings, on Feb. 28, Georgia Southern University student Emmanuel Pham, 20, was arrested on charges of terroristic threats and acts after he reportedly made an online statement that read, "If you value your life, don't be on campus tomorrow."
No incident of violence or harm was reported to have happened at that time on the university campus.
The next day, March 1, a Statesboro High School student admitted she fabricated a story about seeing a threat to the school on social media. She told police she showed her mother the post, but when the school questioned the girl’s mother, they discovered discrepancies and the teen confessed her claim was false.
On March 4, a Southeast Bulloch High School teen was arrested after reportedly making threats of violence to other students. In Candler County, a 13-year-old male Metter Middle School student was arrested March 6 for similar offenses. Wednesday, March 14, a 13-year-old sixth-grader at William James Middle School was charged with terroristic threats and disrupting a public school after he reportedly simulated shooting people.
Bulloch County Schools officials and law enforcement have met to discuss the issue, said Statesboro Police Chief Mike Broadhead and Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown. All agree that such threats will not be tolerated and offenders will be charged.
“We take all threats seriously and launch a formal investigation anytime there is a threat of violence made against a school,” Broadhead said. “We work closely with the school district in these matters and seek advice from the school staff and principal, as well as parents, regarding the type of student making the threat, issues going on in their lives at the time, et cetera. Our concerns are to prevent any actual violence, and then to seek ways to ensure the individual student doesn't make the threats again, whether that involves the criminal justice system, counseling” or otherwise.
Brown said he has recently met with Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson to discuss the student threats as well as preparedness for “when, not if, this happens here.”
Bulloch County is not immune to the possibility of school violence, he said. “It is our job to handle criminal acts and discussion of criminal acts,” and it is everyone’s responsibility to be prepared and watch for signs that a student maybe troubled, bullied or have violent tendencies.
By law, threats of school violence are prosecutable and deputies must turn the cases over to the Department of Juvenile Justice and district attorney’s office, he said.
Broadhead said he feels that while the law must be upheld, arresting students may not be the best answer for all cases. “There is no easy answer and no single way to deal with these. Not all kids are acting out for the same reasons, and responses (arrest, discipline, et cetera) need to be tailored to fit the situation.”
Why do people make these threats?
Public releases by law enforcement regarding the local arrests do not include any comments on reasons why the students committed the crimes. When asked, police and mental health counselors had no ready answers as to why anyone would threaten to shoot fellow students or falsely report such threats.
“Why do kids act out by making threats? I am sure the answers are complex, but generally speaking, kids are under incredible stressors today that simply didn't exist twenty-five years ago,” Broadhead said. “Our fast paced, electronic world combined with the pressures of being a teenager are leaving some kids on the fringes. We all know that the teenaged brain is not fully formed, biologically speaking, and the final part of brain development involves the ability to make good decisions. “
Brown said he feels seeing the repeated media coverage of such tragic events spurs some teens to seek attention. “It’s like a rerun, seen over and over on national television,” he said. “We’ve got to stop talking about it. And a lot of it could be (the offenders) are getting bullied.” If a student is the victim of bullying, he or she needs to contact “the school resource officer or administrators or teachers,” he said. “That can get out of hand.”
Dr. B. Rogers, EdD, NCSP, School Psychologist Coordinator, Bulloch County Schools said such incidents have increased drastically since the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
” The data shows school shootings are increasing in frequency,” he said. “This is the unfortunate reality that this generation of parents and children live in. The increasing frequency of attacks does not make it any less tragic, trauma producing, or shocking to the observer or the outsider. The images shown by the media in Florida portrayed grief and shock of unimaginable proportion. Which leads us back to ‘the why’. Why would a teen make a threat or carry out a threat?”
Teenagers are already at a confusing phase of life, and stressors and other factors can affect their decisions and thought processes, he said.
“The teenager/ tweenager years are a time of self-discovery, physical and mental development and of gaining a sense of self independence. However, during this time of ‘stretching ones wings’, teens can be more easily influenced by what they value as important, make questionable choices or decisions involving higher risk and fail to consider the full impacts or consequences from the choice.”
It may be difficult for older people to understand “some of the thought processes or perspectives of teens growing up today unless they themselves are involved in the very same things,” and teenagers today are growing up in a world bery different from that of even 25 years ago, he said.
“The growth of the importance of social media, use of cryptic acronyms and specialized apps (nefarious or otherwise) are part of today’s culture. A teenagers standing and popularity on media sites, snapchat posts, likes, followings area part of the status of today’s culture. Reality stars have the focus and attention of fames light on them and some people look up to them.”
But those are not always positive influences, Rogers said.
Michelle Meadows, behavior health director for counseling at Pineland Mental Health, said there are several reasons a child might commit a threat of violence.
“Every kid is unique,” she said. “They have different backgrounds and experiences, and it is hard to lump them all together.”
Bullying is likely a major component in reasons many teens act out, she said. “We need to get a handle on bullying and work on family involvement, make resources available and (increase awareness) for those who need it.”
Rogers said outside factors such as “environmental influences, social influences, peer influences, or mental health issues” could affect a teen’s behavior, as well as “increased media violence, violent video games, socially deviant online groups, musical influences, dark societies, isolates, social peer pressure, dehumanization of persons, and devaluing life” that are such a strong part of today’s society.
How should such incidents be handled?
Brown said his department will always be available to talk to school officials and students about the importance of honesty in reporting incidents as well as the importance of “if you see something, say something.”
“We all need to work together, and if you see it or hear it, report it,” he said. “Don’t take action.” This includes retaliation against being bullied. Report bullying to the school resource officer or a school administrator or teacher instead, he said.
Meadows said families as well as school employees should pay more attention to student’s behavior and talk about issues. “We definitely have some unmet needs. We need to start paying attention.”
Media reports state Cruz had been visited by law enforcement almost 40 times about problem behavior and had been expelled from school. While he attended the school, authorities would not allow him to wear a backpack to school and there were at least two reports to Federal Bureau of Investigation special agents about his violent tendencies and publishing threatening remarks on social media. One such comment involved Cruz stating he would someday become a school shooter.
“Professionals make it clear there are no easy profiles or formulas that one can use with individuals to predict behavior,” Rogers said. “So to try and understand ‘the why’ may be elusive. However, being alert, sensitive and proactive is likely the best offense towards safety in the community.”
Community collaboration in preparedness and educating students and families is an important factor in the battle to reduce or stop such incidents as school attacks or threats of harm, he said. “Within the community, taking the appropriate actions and steps by leaders has positive consequences towards preparedness - such as law enforcement, mental health and school community coordination and trainings. “Having personnel within the schools trained and prepared are important steps. Bulloch County Schools has taken and likely will continue to take positive preventative steps to increase school safety.”
Strong parental involvement and a supportive home life are important, too.
“In addition to a nurturing family or loving caregiver in a teen’s life, having those teachers and other school professionals in place, who have positive relationships with students, will have a positive impact on the health and wellness of the community.”
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.