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School threats spike across Pittsburgh region since Florida shooting

Jamie Martines
| Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, 8:36 p.m.
Pennsylvania State Police and Greensburg police participate in an active shooter training session at Hempfield Area High School in 2015.
Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania State Police and Greensburg police participate in an active shooter training session at Hempfield Area High School in 2015.

Southwestern Pennsylvania schools have experienced a spike in threats since the deadly Feb. 14 school shooting in South Florida, and school safety experts say they aren't surprised.

At least 16 threats were reported to school buildings, students or teachers throughout the region over the past 10 days.

Many of those threats came via photos or statements posted to social media, while others were scrawled on bathroom walls. Some threats were verbal, directed at specific students or teachers. All were investigated by school administrators and local law enforcement. In some cases, state police and the FBI were involved.

Although she was unable to comment on the exact number of threats, FBI Pittsburgh Public Affairs Officer Catherine Policicchio confirmed a recent increase. The bureau takes all threats seriously and works with local law enforcement when needed, she said.

The FBI helped with an investigation in the Norwin School District on Thursday involving a threatening photo posted to social media, according to a letter to the school community from Assistant Superintendent Timothy Kotch.

North Huntingdon police were immediately notified and determined there was no immediate threat to students or staff.

While it has not been protocol to contact the FBI in such situations, the decision to involve the bureau in the investigation was made in light of recent events, said North Huntingdon police Sgt. David Sage.

Criminologists are familiar with the idea of a “copycat effect,” said Sarah Daly, a former teacher and school counselor who now is a Saint Vincent College professor of criminology specializing in school violence.

The phenomenon is well-documented and often stems from publicity following an event such as a school shooting, Daly said. Copycats attempting to carry out their own attack may be seeking attention or notoriety and might express admiration for someone who carried out an attack, she said.

If someone is motivated to make a threat, there's usually an underlying reason that they're making it, Daly said, adding that law enforcement and social service agencies should intervene to get that person help.

A student should be disciplined for breaking the rules, but suspending or expelling a student who makes a threat or exhibits concerning behavior isn't enough, said Stephen Brock, a professor of school psychology at California State University in Sacramento who specializes in student mental health.

“It's much better for a student to be in school and supervised,” Brock said, adding that the odds of them engaging in a violent act when they're supervised are much lower.

“It is important to add that not anybody would be susceptible to contagion, or copycat behavior,” Brock said. Students who make such threats likely have experienced other challenges, and it's important to follow through with those students, he said.

Data from the Department of Education Office of Safe Schools show that the total number of threats statewide — including bomb, gun and other violent threats — was consistent from 2006 to 2016, averaging about 650 threats per year.

A Tribune-Review analysis of state data in October 2017 showed that violent threats in Allegheny County consistently decreased yearly from the 2009-10 school year to 2015-16. In Westmoreland County, violent threats remained consistent, averaging 12 to 13 threats per year over the same period.

Data released in November show 54 violent threats were reported by Allegheny County schools for the 2016-17 school year, up from 45 violent threats the previous year. In Westmoreland, 19 violent threats were reported during the 2016-17 school year, up from 12 the year before.

Schools are required to report these and other school safety statistics to the state Department of Education yearly, according to Pennsylvania School Code, which is written and voted on by state lawmakers.

A 2016 study conducted by the National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based school safety consulting firm, showed that 73 percent of violent threats against schools nationwide were shooting or bomb threats. That's more than double the number of threats news outlets reported the year before, the study said. About 37 percent of threats in 2016 were made electronically, with 28 percent of those appearing on social media.

Pennsylvania had one of the highest rates of threats targeting schools, trailing only Ohio and California, according to the study.

“Generally speaking, after a high-profile incident that captures national attention, we tend to see an even greater uptick in that,” Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, said of the apparent spike in threats. “The No. 1 way that we find out about weapons is not from a metal detector, but when kids come forward.”

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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