Copycat threats to Collier schools surged after Parkland shooting attack
Thousands gathered at Pine Trails Park on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018 for a candlelight vigil in honor of the 17 victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Nicole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News
The number of threats to Collier schools has jumped significantly since the school shooting in Parkland, and child psychologists familiar with copycat behaviors say the increase is no surprise.
The Collier County Sheriff's Office investigated at least 27 possible threats to Collier schools in the 12 days after the shooting, compared with fewer than a dozen school threats the Sheriff's Office typically sees throughout an entire school year.
The Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killed 17 students and staff and left more than a dozen injured. A former student was arrested, accused of using an AR-15 rifle in the attack.
Four of the Collier school threats resulted in arrests, and three led to students being taken into protective custody. The incidents range from threats made on social media to students bringing knives and a hit list to school.
A student might be inclined to copy a violent perpetrator if he identifies with a suspect's background and grievances, said Melissa Reeves, immediate past president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
For example, both might have come from an unstable home and been victims of bullying, said Reeves, a senior consultant with Sigma Threat Management Associates, a group that trains school districts to intervene when threats are made.
Students also might be influenced by overexposure to media coverage, she said. This can lead children to crave the same attention they see perpetrators getting and can cause them to become desensitized to gruesome images and ideas.
“They want to make their (attack) better and bigger than the last one,” Reeves said.
Like many communities across the country, Collier sees an increase in school threats after school shootings, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Karie Partington said.
As of Thursday an average of 96 threats and violent incidents a day had been reported at schools across the country since the Parkland shooting, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network, which tracks news reports of threats and violence. During the first half of the school year, the network recorded an average of 11 threats and incidents per day.
Florida has had more incidents than any other state since the shooting, but schools nationwide are being affected.
In Clarksburg, Md., a loaded handgun was found in an 18-year-old student’s bag. Police later found an AR-15 rifle, a shotgun, two handguns, ammunition and a tactical vest in his home.
And in Whittier, Calif., a school deputy overheard a 17-year-old student say the school would be shot up in three weeks. Police found two AR-15 rifles, two handguns and 90 high-capacity magazines in the student’s home; the student’s older brother, an Army veteran, said the weapons belonged to him.
What can parents do
Reeves and other child psychologists say parents should listen to their children, acknowledge their feelings and help them process a school shooting. They should ask them whether they feel socially connected and supported.
Bringing children together to process the shooting as a group is also an option, experts say. Do not promise them that everything will be OK but remind them of the actions that adults are taking to protect them.
Parents should seek outside counseling if needed.
Experts also recommend that parents consider monitoring their children’s phones and social media. Doing so could identify threats made from both their children and from others.
“Most parents think their kids can do no wrong,” said Russell Sabella, past president of the American School Counselor Association and a professor in the department of counseling at Florida Gulf Coast University. “But you need to continually reassess that.”
There are a number of smartphone apps, including PhoneSheriff and FamilyTime, that parents can install to monitor their children’s activity.
If a child misbehaves, there should be consequences, said Sabella, a father of two, and if the behavior worsens, so should the punishment.
“Part of being a parent Is that you have to hold your kids accountable," he said. "You have to be firm, you have to have rules and family policies. Any behavior that is hurtful to others is not acceptable.”
One of the most important steps a parent can take after a mass shooting is to teach their children empathy, Sabella said. This can be done by pointing out the stress and agony inflicted on the lives of those left behind and by showing them how good deeds can help others.
“Show them the impact of love and care and help,” Sabella said.
If you see warning signs ...
If you think your child is heading down a dangerous path, there are actions you can take to intervene, child behavior experts say.
The first is to report it to law enforcement.
“As difficult as that decision is, you could be saving the life of your child and others,” Reeves said.
Schools should avoid immediately resorting to expulsion, Reeves said, because doing so could socially isolate the child and thus push him to act on the threat.
Instead, schools should consider underlying factors — such as losing a family member or lacking a stable home — that might have led to the student’s behavior.
Schools also should craft a threat assessment plan and work with law enforcement officers to determine whether a student intended to carry out the threat.
If officials determine the child is not at high risk of harming others, appropriate intervention might involve searching the student’s backpack every morning, escorting him to and from classes and mandating mental health counseling.
If a child poses a real danger to others and expulsion is deemed appropriate, schools should facilitate a transfer to an alternative education setting and offer family counseling resources.
“Punishment alone does not change behavior,” Reeves said.
But a student older than 18 has a right to reject alternative placement. That was the case in Parkland, where the suspect was expelled in early 2017 and declined to transfer to an alternative school.
Collier County public schools have a number of security measures in place, including single points of entry, visitor screening and a deputy.
But those elements are not going to prevent a committed shooter from entering school grounds, said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.
It’s not to say schools shouldn’t implement security measures, he said.
“They should do everything they can, knowing they can’t do everything.”
The best defense a school can have, Stephens said, is to pay attention to warning signs and follow up with students who make threats.
In a joint statement released days after the Parkland shooting, the Collier school district and Sheriff's Office assured the public they were taking threat investigations seriously.
At a Feb. 22 news conference, Collier school district Superintendent Kamela Patton urged the public to refrain from spreading inaccurate information and reinforced the message of the district’s new Keep Collier Safe initiative: “Don’t spread it. Report it.”
She warned that students who make threats at home, at school or on social media can be arrested, removed from school and banned from Collier County campuses.