Guest Column

A Parent's Wish on Responding to Threats

by Anita L. Nolan

 When I was a child, using your index finger to mimic a gun or yelling "I'm going to get you" was seen as nothing more than typical playground banter. Today the offending child might be hauled off to the principal's office for a suspension and psychological evaluation or to the police station for an interrogation.

Times have changed. The violence committed in our schools in recent years has altered our perceptions of what is considered a threat and how it is handled. While violent acts might be a parent's worst nightmare, how the school handles a threat can go a long way toward reducing fears and concerns of parents and students. We can't prevent threats from happening, but a school can take measures to quash rumors and help ensure the safety of all students when they do occur, while protecting the privacy of all involved.

Recently an incident occurred at the school my son attends in suburban Philadelphia and the administration was in the unfortunate position of having to assess a potentially violent situation. A student had written a story about a bomb being planted at the school. This story was distributed for his class to read and critique. After reading the story, several students and the teacher expressed concerns to the school administration.

Tactful Handling

The administration handled the matter well, taking actions that I hope will serve as a guide to those facing a similar situation.

First, the administrator treated the incident and the people reporting it seriously and gave them the same privilege of privacy as the accused. Students who have the courage to come forward about a peer deserve respect. Don't divulge their identities to the accused or to his or her parents.

Next, the administrator consulted with the police and other appropriate authorities, including the school's attorneys. Erring on the side of caution is appropriate. Any concern about the possibility of a dangerous situation should lead to an outside call. The administrators at my child’s school assessed the situation and immediately called the police, who responded and took the student in for questioning.

School leaders also must provide accurate information to the students as soon as possible. In this case, some students had read the troublesome essay and others had seen the police taking away the student. Rumors began circulating immediately. The administration held meetings with the student body shortly after the police left to explain what had happened and to assure students that the school was safe.

The down side of being open, of course, is that it informs everyone, including the news media, that the incident occurred. My son’s school used the situation to encourage students to step forward should they ever have a concern about the safety of the school. This impromptu assembly on violence brought home to the students the seriousness of the issue because of what had just occurred.

Administrators must treat these situations seriously and show respect and concern for all parties without forgetting that the primary concern should be for safety of the innocent students and staff. In this case, the administration kept in touch with the district attorney’s office and with the child’s parents after consulting with the school’s attorney.

By the end of the day, they met with the student, his parents and a school counselor and concurred with the district attorney that the student did not pose a threat. However, the student will not return to school until he has undergone further off-campus consultations and assessments.

Striking Contrast

Finally, school leaders have an obligation to keep parents informed. The incident at my son’s school occurred on a Thursday. By Saturday, I had received through the mail a letter explaining what had occurred and the actions taken. The letter didn’t reveal the student’s name, age, class or sex. It did, however, spell out everything a parent would want to know: what type of threat had occurred, how the school handled it and what actions were taken with the student. I, in turn, used the letter as a teaching moment with my children and had them read the letter. It was a perfect time to remind them that just as you no longer can use your finger as a gun, even in play, you can’t write about violence either.

The rumors were dispelled. Less than a week later the incident had faded into the background.

The perfect contrast to this school’s response was another incident, in which a student brought a firecracker into my daughter’s middle school. The administration responded with an announcement over the public address system that someone had brought a firecracker to school and they had called the police. They never said anything further. They never sent home a letter to the parents.

Which school would you want your child to attend?

Anita Nolan is a free-lance writer and mother of three. She can be reached at 4955 Melissa Court, Doylestown, PA 18901. E-mail: anitan2@prodigy.net