2 Things We Can Do Right Now About School Threats

LCTI has been closed or in lockdown for the last four straight school days, based on a series of anonymous bomb threats and other anonymous “tips.” LCTI provides technical and vocational education to thousands of Lehigh Valley high school students every day, including hundreds of East Penn students. The disruption has been significant, with students being warehoused for hours each day in places like fire halls and cafeterias; almost a week learning has now been lost; and families have been left scrambling to leave jobs early, rearrange childcare, and more.

The whole thing leaves many of us feeling fearful, frustrated, and powerless to do anything about the situation. But there ARE things all of us can do about it. Let me mention just two.

#1 – Support Social-Emotional Learning

First, lend your active support to social-emotional learning (SEL) initiatives in the schools. The vast majority of threats against schools come from kids who don’t have the skills needed to cope with the stresses and emotions of adolescence. They often lack strong relationships with responsible adults they can turn to for role models, advice, or help. SEL programs can be effective in filling some of these gaps, thereby reducing the likelihood that kids will act out with threats against schools, peers, or others. We all win.

How can we support social-emotional learning efforts? By letting teachers, principals, and administrators know that such programs are valuable to us when we see them. By speaking at school board meetings to advocate for these programs. And by voting. School board candidates and those running for other local and state offices who prioritize social-emotional learning efforts need our support. Including the realistic understanding that such efforts require resources (like tax money) and time in the school day.

#2 – Question Threat Responses

Second, we shouldn’t simply shrug our shoulders and accept that lockdowns, school closures, and other measures are the necessary and inevitable response to every threat. The fact is there is very little evidence that lockdowns as a response to anonymous threats of violence make anyone safer. But you wouldn’t know that given how frequently they are used, and how little information the public is given about why.

So ask for proof! When school officials choose to respond to a threat with a lockdown or school closure, we should ask them if law enforcement deems the threats credible. We should ask for data showing that lockdowns work in such situations. And we should ask for more information on what impact such lockdowns have on things like mental health, sense of community, and academic performance.

We want our school and other officials to make informed decisions, not blind or knee-jerk ones. Should we really be closing schools every single time a random, anonymous threat is made to a tip line, even if law enforcement doesn’t deem them credible? There are often better, situation-specific, ways to handle such situations. The problem is that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the case of threats against schools, lockdowns and closures are the hammer that officials have now become accustomed to using, early and often. Questioning such responses and asking for the details that led to such a decision is the first step to helping change this knee-jerk response culture. Some people are fond of phrases like “abundance of caution” and “you can never be too safe,” but what these terms really mean is that we’re doing things despite having any good evidence or sound rationale.

Setting Our Sights on Tomorrow

Alas, there is no quick fix. Fiascos like that which has unfolded at LCTI over the last week are a long time in the making. They represent the fruit of seeds that were sown over many years.

We therefore need to think longer term, and help our decisionmakers in school districts, law enforcement, and politics do the same. School officials face almost impossible choices right now. A growing number of students have substantial unmet needs that can lead to dangerous behavior, yet the larger public is often hostile to programs that might meet those needs and thus reduce the risks to all of us. At the same time, too few people recognize or appreciate the difference between specific, credible threats and those that lack any real credibility. As a result, officials are under enormous pressure to treat every threat exactly the same way.

Every one of us can make a difference and help reduce risks and harms by actively supporting both social-emotional learning programs and more evidence-based, nuanced responses to school threats.

PS: If you want to learn more, please check out the series of posts I’ve made on school safety & security.

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