Public Safety & Homeland Security

Schools, Law Enforcement Talk Increased School Threats

'A teacher’s job is to teach but they should also understand the signals.'

by Jannette Pippin and Mike McHugh, The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C. / March 5, 2018
APReed Saxon

(TNS) - A bomb threat called in Monday at Northside High School was one of two threats this week targeting schools in Onslow County. On Wednesday, an anonymous text was received that indicated a possible threat to Brewster Middle School aboard Camp Lejeune.

On Feb. 16, just two days after 17 people were killed in a school shooting in Florida, Swansboro area schools were placed on lockdown after a threat placed on social media.

In each case, the threats were not found to be credible and nothing suspicious was found in the school buildings.

Ready to respond

Northside High Principal Maria Johnson is thankful the threats have been false ones but said as school officials they have to be ready to respond any time a threat is received. In this week’s incident, it was a phone call received and at that moment they had no way of knowing whether that bomb threat was real or not.

“We always act as if it is credible because student safety is our first and foremost job,” Johnson said.

Johnson said it is written into a principal’s job description that they are to provide a safe and orderly learning environment.

That means training and practicing what steps staff and students take in potential threat situations or other emergencies.

“Whatever the threat is, we have protocols, steps to follow, things that we are trained to do depending on that threat,” Johnson said.

Johnson said they don’t want to divulge publicly details of those protocols but depending on the situation, schools may respond in different ways, from shelter-in-place, lockdown or evacuation.

After this week’s bomb threat, Northside students were evacuated from the building and waited outside for about 30 minutes until law enforcement gave them the “all clear” that the building was safe to enter.

Status quo

Johnson said such events definitely cause a disruption in the school day but the teachers and staff work hard to maintain the status quo and keep students on track when they return to the classroom.

“If we’re upset, they’re going to be upset. They are going to feed off what the adults in the building are doing so we try to continue with what is normal,” she said.

There are measurable costs of such threats, such as hours lost in the school day or the time law enforcement spends investigating a false threat.

But there are other psychological ones that they can’t necessarily measure.

Heightened sensitivity

Johnson said students have followed the news of the school shooting in Florida, during which the suspect pulled a fire alarm to cause panic, and it has had an impact. She saw it during the first fire drill they had following the shooting.

“I think their sensitivity is heightened certainly because of everything that happened,” Johnson said. “You know, we had a fire drill the other week and a student was asking how do we know it is a real fire drill? Should we go outside or stay inside?”

Johnson said it is a valid question and one they have kept in mind as they look at the best ways to prepare for threats and emergencies and protect students.

Onslow County Schools Director of Community Affairs Brent Anderson said they have to work closely with students so that concerns about such incidents hinder their response to practices and drills designed to protect them.

“That is the kind of costs that are hard to measure because there are situations now where students are anxious about what they see on the news. We’ve got to be careful that it does not impede what we need to do in practice to make sure we provide for the safety of the students,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to work with the students to make sure they understand the importance of it.”

From their eyes

Northside High School junior Lindsay Plummer said the bomb threat this week at the high school isn’t the first time she’s had to evacuate school for one. She recalls one in middle school as well.

“It really worries you because you don’t know what is going on,” she said. “It interrupts your school day and it doesn’t have to happen.”

Jonathan Thompson doesn’t think such threats should be made but he sees them as something that happens in today’s society.

“It is the kind of thing we have to deal with,” Thompson said.

Teaching moment

Jacksonville family counselor John A Shalhoub says a school’s primary duty and the teachers who instruct children is “to teach.” Shalhoub feels schools should “make sure the kids understand” threats exist.

“A teacher’s job is to teach but they should also understand the signals," he said.

Shalhoub says both parents and teachers have a role educating children on the signs of danger much like a child first learns the safe way in which to cross a street at a controlled intersection.

“We teach our children to cross the street when the light turns red. It’s the same for school threats. Anxiety and fear is going to be there but once our children understand the signs of danger, they become more understanding,” Shalhoub said.

Shalhoub said this teaching should be part of everyday life.

“It’s the new normal. It’s part of learning, it’s part of life,” Shalhoub said.

Throughout his career as a Navy Chaplain, ordained Orthodox Priest, author and public school counselor, Shalhoub has served as a disciplinarian counselor. While at White Oak High School in that capacity a student wrote a note to him threatening to harm the school.

“I brought him in to my office and asked him what he was doing writing this note. We handled that situation immediately and disciplined him. Now, schools take threats seriously,” Shalhoub said

Serious effort

Threats to schools, real or imagined, are taken serious by law enforcement officials.

Jacksonville Police Department Capt. Ashley Weaver says when a threat is made towards a school, officers must quickly assess the nature of the threat.

“We have to consider the type of building, number of rooms, size of the property when conducting a thorough search of a building. This might include requesting resources from other agencies such as the NC SBI or Camp Lejeune and the time for them to respond to the location,” Weaver said in a written response to The Daily News.

The threats also mean that fewer officers are available for the rest of the area, Onslow County Sheriff’s Office Col. Donnie Worrell. Since Feb. 16, OCSO has responded to two threats involving six schools: The four Swansboro schools, Sandridge Elementary in Hubert and Hunters Creek Middle School in Jacksonville.

“When we had the lockdowns in Swansboro a couple weeks ago, we probably sent an additional six to eight officers over there,” Worrell said. "We pulled personnel from patrol, the office and some extra detectives to trace the origin of the call. But many of them were out there on the perimeter for two to three hours just waiting for the ‘all clear.’ It’s a lot of waiting around.”

And whether the threat is actual and diffused quickly and without injury or if it’s deemed a hoax and the scene is given an “all clear,” there’s work remaining for investigators before they can close the case.

Weaver says reports must be written by every officer responding to the scene that include all interviews conducted by the officer plus any statements made by witnesses and all evidenced gathered during their time on the scene. Detectives must produce written reports which are sent to supervisors for review. Final drafts are then sent to records division staff.

Weaver states that this manpower and effort “requires the valuable time of officers, supervisors and staff.”

Behind each threat is a person or a group people responsible for the threat. If suspects are identified and subsequently arrested, the time and effort placed on investigators increases. On Feb. 26, a Jacksonville High School was charged with calling in a bomb threat to Northside High School. Jacksonville Police arrested James Tyler Chandler with phoning in a false report of mass violence on school property.

“The time, cost and effort associated with an arrest in a bomb threat investigation can be extensive depending upon the case. In many cases, the time and effort of other agencies, such as the Onslow County District Attorney’s Office is involved,” Weaver said.

A spider web

Threats can also create a ripple effect across the community as parents learn about the threat, according to Lt. Col. Eric W. Young, security company commander and Provost Marshal Headquarters and Support Battalion MCIEAST-MCB Camp Lejeune/MCAS New River.

The ripple effect can create “a spider web of rumors that is compounded by an internet-connected generation. Compounding situations like these can be extremely taxing on a resource-constrained criminal investigation capability to chase down all the witnesses in an attempt to get to the source," Young said.

Young understands the concern of parents drawn into these situations but says they can quickly inundate the system.

“As parents hear about the potential threat and take action, phone lines into 911 can quickly be overwhelmed resulting in a delayed response to lesser priority calls,” Young said.

Tweaking protocols

Johnson and Anderson said that they are continually working at the school and district level to improve and tweak protocols and plans for responding to threats that arise.

Johnson said they do a de-briefing after every drill or response to threats or emergencies and the recent school threats just reinforce the need to always be prepared.

“When things like this happen, it forces you to look at what all your processes are to make sure you are tweaking them every time, whether something happens here or elsewhere,” she said.


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