Threats that followed a Michigan school shooting may have been the latest high-profile scares at Charleston-area schools, but teacher advocates say the incidents are too frequent and becoming more complicated. District officials say each reported incident is handled seriously, and none are assumed to be normal.
At least three incidents were reported in early December, according to district and media reports: A gun was found in a student’s backpack at North Charleston High School Dec. 4, live ammunition was found at Gregg Middle School in Summerville Dec. 8 and threats related to Lucy Beckham High School in Mount Pleasant circulated social media, prompting a police investigation the night of Dec. 3.
Similar threats at schools statewide range from firearms found in lockers to writings on bathroom walls.
Threats are often found to be unsubstantiated, such was the case at Lucy Beckham High, but each must be taken seriously and investigated fully to ensure the safety of students and staff in schools, Charleston County School District (CCSD) director of communications Andy Pruitt told the City Paper.
“We have to determine whether the claims that are made by an individual or individuals are, one: substantiated, and if they did make those claims, what is the true threat assessment showing,” he explained. “Based on that, we can determine what the next best steps are — whether it’s handled via student discipline, or does a child need support from an outside organization?”
And though it often feels like the rate of threats is on the rise, Pruitt said it’s important that these measures never begin to feel routine.
“Nothing like this is ever routine,” he said. “Any time there’s a rumor or a threat, we’re going to get it investigated, and we treat all these cases the same — we take them all seriously.”
School district officials could not provide the City Paper a precise accounting of recent threats made related to local schools by publication time.
But according to media analysis by statewide education advocacy group SC for Ed, 48 substantiated threats against schools have been made since school started in August. Two of those were made in Charleston County schools — one in October at Baptist Hill Middle High School and the Dec. 4 incident involving the gun at North Charleston High School.
“Like many issues in schools, threats and violence have been worsening issues over the years and have now seen a spike during the pandemic,” said SC for Ed representative Steve Nuzum in an interview with the City Paper. “The two main exacerbating factors seem to be the intense stress (and sometimes traumatic experiences) placed on students and staff, and the retention and recruitment crisis.
“Understaffed schools full of stressed-out people are a recipe for disaster,” he said. “From the state, we need funding and resources for more social workers, psychologists, nurses, counselors, and teachers. At the district level, we need to put the brakes on unnecessary accountability (testing) measures and prioritize student and staff health first, priority academic skills and content second, and everything else needs to ease off considerably.”
Regardless of the frequency of incidents, school officials have to act fast, and there are a lot of boxes to check when it comes to handling an investigation into a threat.
The first step is a threat assessment, according to Michael Reidenbach, the district’s executive director of security and emergency management.
“If we become aware of any sort of potential threat to our campus, especially if it involves someone who is considering harming themselves or others, we have a multidisciplinary team that assembles to conductors a threat assessment of those situations to determine not only the severity of the treat, but to make sure the proper supports and interventions are put into place with the ultimate goal of stopping that threat from harming anybody,” Reidenbach said in a Nov. 5 school resource video.
“We want to make sure that if there are hazards or emergencies that can interrupt the learning process, that we address them as quickly as possible so our students can get back to learning and our teachers can get back to teaching,” he said.
CCSD has adopted the Standard Response Protocol, a system put out by the I Love You Guys Foundation, a national nonprofit school safety organization that Reidenbach said “filled the gap in the school-safety world.”
The protocol uses five verbal warnings students and teachers can easily recognize, taking different measures depending on the cue: hold, secure, lockdown, evacuate and shelter.
When a student hears, “Hold,” they clear the hallways, but otherwise do business as usual, when they hear, “Lockdown,” they know to stay out of sight and silent.
“Those five responses really address most of the hazards we could potentially face, and they’re all based in plain language: ‘Here’s what you hear, here’s what you do,’” Reidenbach said.
But not every item on the list is geared specifically toward the students. Parents must also be part of the equation.
“The biggest thing is an open line of communication between our parents and our schools and district,” Pruitt said. “We are here to listen to what you have to say — to listen to your concerns. We want to make sure that conversation continues.”
The channel of communication then follows from parents back to students, a conversation that mental health advocates recognize can be difficult.
In early December, officials with the S.C. Department of Mental Health shared with reporters advice for parents on how to discuss the perceived rise in school threats and other incidents.
“When children express concern about weapons at school, it’s important for parents and caregivers to make time for a conversation and listen carefully to children’s feelings,” said department director of school mental health Margaret Meriwether. “Younger children need brief, simple information and reassurance that their schools and homes are safe. Older children may need more in-depth conversations about school safety procedures.”
District officials, local police departments and mental health advocates have all said one of the most important things a parent or student can do when it comes to threats against their schools is report them. Reports can be made to local authorities anonymously, or to school districts directly.
If parents are concerned about their children’s emotional well-being, Meriwether said, they should seek the help of a mental health professional.