More than half a dozen Maine schools have dealt with a spate of threats in the last two weeks — leading some to call off classes for the day — is a trend that should be expected to continue.
And even though the threats so far haven’t materialized and students have remained safe, the threats still come with a cost, according to a national expert on school threats.
Schools in the Standish area, Portland, Lewiston, Bangor, Old Town, Orono and Calais have all dealt with threats over the past two weeks. In some cases, school officials canceled classes for an entire day or shifted to remote learning. In one case, students were evacuated before returning to the building, and in another, there was a police presence on campus but no change to the schedule.
Maine school safety officials said this week that the fact none of the threats materialized shows safety systems and training schools have put in place are working. But there’s still a cost to kids, said Amy Klinger, an associate professor of educational administration at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.
“That is the dilemma for schools. They have to respond,” said Klinger, who is also co-founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network, which works with schools on safety training. “They want to respond and err on the side of caution, but now you’re going to lose this whole day.
“Sometimes schools don’t have good policies and procedures in place to be able to have a continuum of options to respond. Sometimes it is an all or nothing sort of situation.”
The proliferation of threats once one happens is virtually inevitable, Klinger said. This phenomenon of so-called copycat threats isn’t a new one. It’s something researchers have studied routinely in the years since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
“You’re going to almost inevitably get a significant number of copycat threats,” Klinger said, “especially if the response gets people what they want — which is chaos, anxiety, fear, closing school and disrupting the day.”
Calais School Department Superintendent Ron Jenkins noted the cost involved with closing school for the day on Thursday, after the Washington County city’s middle and high school building shut down due to a threat. School buses were preparing to pick up students when administrators called off school.
“We regret that there are people that think this type of activity is ‘funny’ or even an acceptable way to respond to whatever frustrations or personal problems they may have,” he said. “It is costly both in lost educational opportunities and in money spent for transportation, food service and having to make up for lost time.”
There are other costs that go beyond the direct tradeoffs, Klinger said. Those include students’ and parents’ doubts over schools’ safety. Another potential cost is the risk that students and parents will minimize future threats.
“To say a threat is probably nothing is correct. It probably is nothing. But the fact is, you didn’t have a normal day,” Klinger said. “The kids weren’t there, families were inconvenienced and upset, so it isn’t just nothing. There are costs.”
The number of school threats has been on the rise since 2013, Klinger said, with a variety of factors contributing. COVID-19 is yet another factor now.
“I think in the wake of COVID when you have lots of kids who were out of school, lots of trauma and anxiety, it’s not surprising that it’s going to spill over to your schools,” she said. “And I think we have been seeing that pretty early on this year.”