Power to the parents: Keeping kids calm about school threats

The traditional “how was school today?” chat between parents and their children has in recent months increasingly taken on ominous tones.

More often now these end-of-the-day conversations include terms like "killer clowns," "bomb threats," "school lockdown" and "active shooter."

Social media and its hysteria-amplifying powers add to the frequency of school threats, forcing many parents to talk about them with their children.

“The way social media is so big today, it’s easier to scare people,” said Mike Hawkins, whose son attends Fairfield City Schools.

Fellow Fairfield Schools parent Kristin Thompson said she does what she can to keep her children calm in the aftermath of social media-fueled rumors of dangers, but “I also know it (violent threats) can happen in the best of school districts.”

The apparent threats — sometimes found in hind-sight to elicit over-reactions — keep coming.

Recently, Lakota’s Endeavor Elementary cancelled recess outside for a day because rumors — all unfounded — had swirled through the school and on social media that a threat lurked on the school grounds.

And on Wednesday, Middletown Police were alerted to a man sitting in a parked car outside of Rosa Parks Elementary “spinning the cylinder” of what appeared to be a “silver revolver,” according to Middletown Police.

Police later tracked down the car — the man had made no threatening moves toward anyone — and found it was a toy gun he was holding that a youngster had earlier left in the vehicle.

But child and school security experts say parents are not powerless in calming their children.

How parents communicate with their children about school threats can play a key role on tamping down some of the hysteria and rumors, often made worse by social media sharing.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey R. Strawn said parents hold the key to keeping their children calm about increasingly frequent school threats.

“A lot of child and adolescent reaction is based on parental reaction,” Strawn said. “If parents are anxious, that will be one of the most important drivers of a child’s anxiety.”

Be receptive to answering your child’s questions and make sure they know the lines of communication are open to discuss any aspect of school threats, advises Strawn, who is also director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program and Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine.

But avoid “threat bias” — talking too much on the particulars of a certain kinds of threats, he warns.

“That is talking about a situation with specific attention to a threat or focusing on what might happen such as what would happen if someone comes in with a gun,” he said.

The sobering conversations are understandable given the national rash of school threats and violence having already accelerated beyond last school year’s record pace.

In Ohio, more than 170 school threats were reported in the 2015-16 school year, according to an Associated Press tally based on police updates and media coverage.

Threats of bombs, shootings and unspecified violence were called in, written as notes, scrawled on walls and shared via social media and apps. More than 100 Ohio public school districts — roughly one in every six — dealt with at least one threat, as did a handful of private and charter schools and several college-level facilities.

The number of school bomb threats this past academic year alone, based on media reports, totaled at least 1,267, roughly twice as many as in 2012-13, researcher Amy Klinger, who is co-founder and director of the Educators School Safety Network, recently told the AP.

Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, said “while the threats targeting schools widely have been determined to lack credibility … parents need to have age-appropriate communications with their kids about school safety threats and concerns.”

“We’re not going to talk with six-year-olds like we will 16-year-olds, but we still should be talking with all children in an age-appropriate way to put context around safety concerns they may become aware of and how to share their concerns with teachers and parents. And it is important for parents to reassure kids that adults are taking steps to keep them safe and they should make adults aware of any concerns they have about their safety at school or to-and-from school.”

And experts warn parents and teens not to add to any hysteria by sharing rumors or other unconfirmed misinformation on social media.

“Parents should remind students, especially teens engaged with social media, not to unwittingly contribute to threat rumors and misinformation by spreading electronic and other messages they receive from other youth,” said Trump. “Many kids will pass along threat information they receive with the good intentions of making their friends aware of the situation.”

And parents should heed that same advice, says Lakota Board of Education member Julie Shaffer.

This week Shaffer cautioned a gathering of school parents in the Butler County district to use restraint about sharing unfounded threat information on social media.

She cited the recent alarm at Endeavor Elementary and said, “I would implore you to please help with this … help try to diffuse those situations,” Shaffer said.

“Please be aware that our principals do communicate (with school parents) if there are issues in the building. If you have a question, please call that administrator before posting on social media what you may have heard or sharing what somebody else has posted to be true,” said Shaffer.

“We are very quick to send out notes (e-mails) to people on what has happened in the building,” she said.

Hamilton City Schools parent Kelli Kidd said she has given her son simple, specific instructions should a menace threaten at school: “Follow instructions.”

But Hawkins, the Fairfield parent, isn’t optimistic about seeing any abatement of school threats in the near future and blames our internet-connected society.

“I don’t think we’ve bottomed out yet,” he said, adding “with social media these threats are always going be around.”

About the Author