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How should local police, schools and news media handle school threats?

April 10, 2013|By Kelli Stopczynski (kstopczynski@wsbt.com) | WSBT TV

It's a serious enough threat that Elkhart, Goshen, Mishawaka and the Penn-Harris-Madison Schools sent a letter home to parents about a threat involving kids, but administrators in South Bend decided not to.

However, there are questions about how and when schools, police and the news media report incidents like this to the public.

Police first learned about the threat to kill local students in January. The vague threat said 20 students at 5 schools in Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties would be killed on Monday, April 15. It didn’t list specific schools or students.

Police immediately opened an investigation, told school leaders about it and have not caught the person who made the threat. WSBT did not know about it until Elkhart Police sent a news release earlier this week. We chose not to report it right away because we wanted to gather the facts and talk to schools and police. But we’ve heard a lot of phone calls, e-mails and Facebook feedback from parents, wondering why we weren’t covering it.

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Publicizing Threats

Schools do not notify parents each time there is a threat. Instead, they assess the threat, its credibility and weigh whether there’s a benefit to notifying people who could be affected by it. There’s generally a protocol followed when businesses, schools and law enforcement investigate threats.

Elkhart Community Schools is one that does not notify parents every time there is a threat or rumored threat.

“First of all, we don’t want to create a huge level of hysteria,” said Doug Thorne, the corporation’s executive director of personnel and legal services. “Frequently, threats are attempts by a student, for example, to get a day off.”

“You have to look at it intelligently and see if the information is a necessity that people need to know to protect themselves,” said threat assessment consultant Tim Corbett. “I think an informed worker is a better worker, and that's what I have stressed through the assessments that I have done.”

Corbett is also the commander of St. Joseph County’s Metro Homicide Unit. A police officer for 38 years, he also works for local school districts and businesses as the threat assessment consultant.

“When somebody makes a threat like that, whether it’s verbal, written, it’s on a video, whatever, you have to take it, evaluate it and take it at that time until you can disprove it,” he added.

Alongside the legal trouble – including the potential for prison time – anyone who makes a threat at school, work or anywhere else could lose a lot. 

“College and career can both be damaged,” said Penn-Harris-Madison Superintendent Jerry Thacker. “Military appointments, scholarships, all kinds of things have been lost by students who make foolish threats.” 

Thacker and Thorne agree – things have changed a lot since December’s mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those changes include more security at many area schools and an increased awareness.

When Should WE Report Threats?

The WSBT newsroom struggles with how and when to report school threats. We work closely with schools and police to make sure we have all the information before making our decisions, but generally we do not report a threat made toward a school or people at a school unless someone is arrested or prosecuted for it.

Our goal is to be responsible, limit the number of potential copycat situations and make sure what we’re reporting doesn’t do more harm than good.

A Previous School Threat We Reported

A specific serious local threat we reported five years ago involved a 16-year-old Penn High School student who eventually admitted his role in a planned attack at Penn. In 2008, that teen researched how to get a gun and make propane bombs. He planned with an Ohio man to kill people at the high school.

A school resource officer got wind of the plan before the attack happened and alerted other investigators and the prosecutor’s office, who were all able to stop it.

A judge sentenced that 16-year-old to juvenile detention.

How do you talk to your kids about violence? 

Advice from the National Association of School Psychologists: http://www.phm.k12.in.us/sites/default/files/pdffiles/news/Talkingaboutviolence.pdf

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