Concerns About Communications Surround School Threat Incidents

Apr 6, 2018

Some area schools received several significant safety threats following the Parkland, Florida, shooting where 17 people were killed. For this week’s Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Katie Finlon talks with school and law enforcement officials about how they plan to communicate with parents and the public about such threats from here on out.

Kaneland Schools Supt. Todd Leden hands the microphone over to another school official during a recent community school safety forum. The event was mainly to give parents of students in those schools an opportunity to ask school officials about school safety protocols and what’s to come. Some parents also expressed their concern about current communication outreach practices during recent incidents.

Matt and Wendy Beck, who have children attending Kaneland schools, came to the meeting.

“The impetus was, yeah, I’ve read a lot of stuff about the Parkland shooting and how threats against schools go up after a threat,” Matt Beck said. “So I was curious: How many threats have been made against our schools? And the only way we could get that answer was through FOIA.”

He says that, when he submitted that Freedom of Information Act request, he was expecting information on two instances where ammunition was found in the high school. Instead, Beck said, he got information about three.

“The school never communicated a third threat against the school that was made on social media by a student in Kaneland,” he said.

Beck says he was concerned about that third documented threat not being communicated as widely with Kaneland High School parents as the two other events.

“If they don’t say anything, if they don’t tell me about a threat, they take away my ability to protect my child,” he said. “If a threat is made against the school on Friday, I might not want to send my kid to school on Monday, no matter what they think of it. And if I don’t know, I can’t make that decision.”

Parent Eva Tait, who also attended the meeting, had similar thoughts. “If there’s an incident with a student, whether or not they think it’s important, I might feel differently, and I should be able to make that decision.”

Tait has a child in the middle school who will be a high school student next school year. She says she is paying attention now to how the high school communicates with parents about threats to the school. Tait says she works in healthcare, and she more than understands how some information about student suspects has to be kept confidential.

“But, you know, you can give enough detail about something where a person can feel confident in what you’re saying without disclosing things that shouldn’t be shared,” she said.

Wendy Beck says she and Matt have met with school administration about what they uncovered in their FOIA request, including high school Principal Jill Maras.

“We do feel like, especially Jill Maras, I think she has really heard us, our concerns. I think she does care,” Wendy Beck said. “We just hope that the administration keeps hearing that this isn’t something that is left in this sort of relaxed posture.”

Kaneland Supt. Todd Leden

Kaneland Supt. Leden says the usual communication approach during an incident is to send a couple of statements and text messages to parents to reassure them that the situation is under control and taken care of.

Leden says the district’s number one priority is student and staff safety, which is why there isn’t such a heavy emphasis on providing live updates for parents for every incident. He says parents are more likely to hear from their sons or daughters before they would hear from the school district in the heat of the moment.

Leden says he thought the community safety forum was constructive, and that it was useful to hear the concerns of parents all in one place – especially when it comes to providing information to parents on specific safety threats.

“What we’ll try to do is communicate specifically on each one, as opposed to just a standard response that’s always going to be the same,” he said, “because each situation might be slightly different.”

These concerns aren’t present in just Kaneland schools. Parents also expressed concern about offials’ communication practices when a threatening message was written on a bathroom stall at Stillman Valley High School, in the Meridian School District.

“Issuing any type of statement before you have all of the facts is always dangerous,” said Meridian Supt. PJ Caposey. “It could be misleading, and it could lead to additional panic. And so it’s a very touchy situation that we take on a case-by-case scenario.”

Caposey says the school has never been in lockdown outside of drills, and he says responses to each threat are based on the circumstances and need to be handled individually.

Meridian School District Supt. PJ Caposey

“I think that it’s a mixed bag and, if we would’ve gone on lockdown and immediately called everyone and let them know, then the parents that were able to come to school to take their children and feel safer about that would not have had access to their kids,” he said, “and they would’ve been dealing with a different outcry.

"So, I just think it’s a very layered situation in which, again, is very circumstantial and case-by-case. We work through the protocols that we have, and we work with our first responders and try to make the best decision that we can on behalf of our kids.”

Caposey says there’s always something to learn from each incident, and there’s always a gap in each crisis-response scenario. He says that, ultimately, he doesn’t regret the decisions made between school officials and law enforcement in overall handling of the Stillman Valley High School incident.

But Caposey says he doesn’t blame parents for being vocal about their concerns about that incident in particular or parents pulling their children out of school because of the threat.

“So I think that, given everything that has been happening in our world around us that, when people hear that there’s a threat that’s dealing with and responding with their own children,” he said, “I think that, no matter what we do or choose to do in terms of communication protocol, I think we’re going to get criticized at some point.”

The common theme is that schools work with local law enforcement not only to determine the best course of action to keep everyone in the building safe but also to determine what specific information to release at what time regarding a threat.

DeKalb Police Commander Craig Woodruff says the police chief usually works hand in hand with school officials in determining how credible a threat is, along with how and when to notify families and the general public about large-scale safety concerns.

“Heaven forbid, we ever have an active shooter here in DeKalb again, those are a simpler way to respond, because it is lock everything down, everybody goes,” Woodruff said. “It is a massive response and, as far as alerting the public, it’s a little bit easier because it’s very simple.”

Woodruff says it gets a little harder to figure out the best course of action for more ambiguous threats, like one recent bomb threat targeting “DeKalb schools,” and whether or not it’s credible. He says school and police officials treat every threat like a real threat until investigators are positive it’s not.

“We look to see which way it was transmitted, we look for the very specific wording.” He explained. “I mean, if it is very direct that, ‘Such and such is going to happen at such and such time.’ That is different than, ‘Hey, something bad is going to happen soon.’”

Woodruff says investigators don’t want to distribute alarming or false messages in the meantime, but he says they also want to keep everyone informed.

School safety threats aren’t necessarily limited to bombings or school shootings, he says. For instance, there was a police stand-off with a man who had guns and ammunition in a DeKalb neighborhood. Woodruff says that neighborhood happened to be close to a DeKalb middle school.

“The school district put out the message to the parents of the school that Clinton-Rosette was going to be locked down and how to pick up your kids,” he said. “We actually changed the manner to pick up kids that day so that everything was on the back side of the building in a very controlled manner until we got it resolved, so that we can make sure that the kids were coming out, that the kids were being safe. We didn’t want to send a kid just walking home right past our problem area.”

And, Woodruff says, communication goes both ways when it comes to keeping a safe and watchful community.

“In my career, I cannot tell you how many people have apologized for calling the police or how many people have [said], ‘Hey, I don’t want to bother you,’” he said. “You’re not bothering us. This is what we do, and we need the public to keep their eyes open and call us whenever they see anything suspicious.”

Both school and law enforcement officials say that the safety of students and others is most important, even though every situation is different. The only constant is that they will work together to achieve that goal.