Threats of violence at school are regularly on the minds of parents and students these days, and for good reason.
With that in mind, the Anoka-Hennepin School District staff sat down to explain what goes into an investigation and how the district determines threat credibility.
“The first step in investigating a threat for anything we hear is: who said it, where and what’s the context around it?” Superintendent David Law said.
Any threat made to the district is taken seriously, Chief Operations Officer Greg Cole said. The district’s process kicks in to determine how serious a threat is and the district errs on the side of caution, said Cole, who was previously in charge of districtwide discipline policy.
Threats are usually examined by multiple staff, and when in doubt, or when the investigation goes beyond school grounds, the district will lean on local police to assess and investigate a threat.
Much of the district’s protocols for investigating a school threat appear as a black box to the public for a few reasons. For one, the district is legally constrained from sharing disciplinary information about students. That also is why the district won’t share information on students who were caught, whether or not they were expelled or otherwise disciplined.
On top of that, the district avoids sharing information before the facts are in, because it does not want to panic the community.
“We have an obligation to be sharing information that’s accurate; otherwise we can contribute to fear and alarm ourselves, which is really an unhealthy thing to do to a community,” Cole said.
While the district does have a protocol for determining how credible a threat is, it does not share that information publicly in case students would use it to game the system. Law did point out that the district’s threat assessment protocol mirrors the process used by the Secret Service.
“If I know, I go home and tell my parents some kid said he was going to shoot someone and then there’s no school tomorrow, we might not have school ever again,” Law said.
He referenced a time in the early ’90s when Coon Rapids High School was evacuated four Fridays in a row due to bomb threats.
A majority of potential threats administration investigates are misunderstandings that may sound threatening out of context, according to Law.
“More often than not you’ll find it to be a careless comment of a kid, because they were angry and they said something at the spur of the moment and they know that if they wrote something like that they’ll get a reaction out of authority figures,” Coon Rapids Police Chief Brad Wise said.
Other times students may not have the developmental capacity to understand what they are doing. One example Law gave was a student that brought a plastic butter knife to school with the intention of getting expelled.
Online threats also are investigated and commonly turn out to be doctored posts that originally had nothing to do with Anoka-Hennepin.
Director of Communications Jim Skelly offered an example where a threat was made online at a “BHS” school that got passed around on social media as a threat against Blaine High School. However, in that instance, it was a repost from a school in New Mexico that has the same abbreviation.
That doesn’t mean the district won’t pull out all the stops when it comes to securing schools, especially when the person responsible for creating a threat can’t be located.
One night, right after the 2018 shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the district had every bomb sniffing dog in the metro area searching the schools in response to a threat for which the responsible party couldn’t be located, Law said.
While the district may appear to not be responding to parents, usually administrative staff are already aware of a threat and are following up on leads. Other times they may have passed the investigation to police who are tracking or found the responsible party.
It’s only once a threat has been determined impossible that the district may inform parents that the threat was found not to be credible.
“A threat is deemed noncredible only through investigation; it’s never just the nature of what was written itself,” Wise said. “It’s assumed credible until we can disprove it.”