NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A significant number of parents have kept their children home from school, and some schools have closed their doors for a day after an influx of potential threats were reported across Middle Tennessee.
Although many investigations have concluded with the threats being unsubstantiated, the reports have evoked anxiety in the aftermath of a mass shooting that claimed six lives at The Covenant School in Nashville nearly a month ago.
Just one day after the shooting, Lt. Tommy Greer, who oversees all school resource officers for the Sumner County Sheriff’s Office, said there were seven possible threats reported at Sumner County schools. Typically, Sumner County SROs investigate one to two threats each week.
A week later, a “significant” number of students stayed home after a shooting threat at Lebanon High School, and just last week Cannon South Elementary School closed while deputies investigated a possible threat made by a 4th grader — the second potential threat in a week.
‘We’re seeing this all over the country’
“We’re seeing this all over the country. Even though this most recent school shooting was in Nashville you’re actually seeing rises in threats in many other states. Unfortunately, it’s very common,” said Nicole Cobb, Associate Chair and Associate Professor of the Practice, Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University.
Cobb has worked in education for over 25 years as a teacher, school counselor and administrator at the district and state level, and her research continues to focus on school counseling, climate and social-emotional learning.
With each mass shooting at not only schools, but other spots like movie theatres and concert venues, Cobb said there tends to be an increase in people making false threats and sometimes attempting copycat crimes in the weeks and even months following.
The same could be seen after the Columbine shooting on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and Cobb said it has only increased following more recent tragedies, including subsequent shootings like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“You sort of have this contagion effect after things like this,” she said. “You would also see it when you see a mass shooting at a grocery store, or a movie theater or a concert, threats to similar places go up.”
Psychology behind school threats after mass shootings
Threats reported in the aftermath of a shooting can stem from a variety of emotions and behaviors, Cobb said. In less serious situations, she said it may be that a student “wants attention” or school to close and “doesn’t understand the gravity of making these threats.”
However, threats that are “more serious in nature” can arise when you have people who “enjoy seeing the chaos that making a threat ensues on a community, on a police department, on a school,” said Cobb, who added that many times there are “red flags.”
“Often what I’ve seen, if the culprit is caught, meaning who makes the threat, when you talk to school administrators, they’re often not surprised who it is,” she said. “This is kind of a highflier in their office, and maybe they just escalated the behavior.”
According to Cobb, students who are disengaged from school and who demonstrate other behavioral issues are much more likely to be involved in making school threats, whether it’s something anonymously written on a bathroom wall, or a threat posted on social media.
“It’s usually students who don’t feel connected to their schools who maybe have anger issues or have behavior issues beforehand, and they just see this as an opportunity to increase that misbehavior they probably have been doing all along,” Cobb said.
While threats have spiked following mass shootings in the past, Cobb said the country may be seeing more now because of the use of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic, which stripped away social settings where kids normally developed social and emotional skills.
“Coming back from COVID we actually saw a lot of threats to schools increasing and poor behavior like fighting, flipping desks, having meltdowns in the class,” Cobb said. “So, we have to teach our young people ‘What do you do with these big feelings’.”
Social media has also created what often feels like a “veil” kids can hide behind, leading to more cyberbullying and more threats, Cobb said. However, in most cases, police can easily track down the person behind a threatening social media post.
‘It creates a huge burden on our law enforcement’
Most threats end up not being credible, but Cobb said there are some cases where even if there’s no physical harm, there are students who are looking to cause “emotional harm” through the anxiety that affects both their peers and teachers.
“It immediately creates a trauma response in that just your school going on lockdown causes fear, anxiety, worry, not just in students, teachers and parents, but everyone in the community,” Cobb said. “And I think it creates a huge burden on our law enforcement.”
That burden can be both emotional and financial, given the amount of resources and time that goes into school threat investigations, Cobb said. In some states like Ohio, lawmakers have been cracking down on false threats with stricter punishments.
A change in Ohio law that went into effect earlier this month made deliberately calling or texting police with a false school threat a felony. Those found guilty are also required to pay back the fees associated with the investigation.
Although less severe, in 2022, making a threat of violence against a school and failure to report a threat became crimes in Tennessee, with many Middle Tennessee students facing the repercussions.
Focusing on prevention
Several school systems have also chosen to suspend students found responsible, but Cobb said, from a research background, preventing school threats starts with a “focus on a school’s climate and culture from the beginning of a school year.”
“We do see from the research on school climate that students who feel more connected and engaged at school, who care about school, who care about their teachers are less likely to make threats or act on a violent action toward the school or their peers,” Cobb said.
It’s also important for school staff to be able to connect students with mental health resources when they see “red flags,” Cobb added, whether that be a counselor or therapist. “We want to get these students that kind of support before it turns to something violent.”
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In addition, Cobb said parents can play an important role in preventing school threats by having conversations with their children about what’s a joke and what should be taken seriously, as well as the importance of quickly reporting possible threats to a trusted adult.
“I think we have to take this on as a community,” she said. “It can’t just be the school’s responsibility, the principle’s responsibility. We really have to take this on as just a responsible community to train our young people that it’s not OK.”