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Educators Trying to Calm Students Amid Threats of Violence

The spate of threats proliferating on social media has presented police and school officials with the challenge of assessing their seriousness and determining whether to cancel class and close buildings.

Responders at Santa Fe High School following a shooting on May 18, 2018.
(TNS/Zuma Wire/Harris County Sheriff's Office)
(TNS) - Educators in communities across the state are trying to quell the nerves of anxious students, teachers and parents in the face of threats of gun violence targeting schools.

On Monday, students at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven were dismissed early after officials said they received a report of a person approaching the school with a gun. The city’s Hillhouse High School and Achievement First Amistad High School let out early due to threats posted on social media. Officials said they also learned of threats targeting other city schools.

Schools in Hamden, Norwich and Manchester are also monitoring threats in the wake of the mass shooting at a public high school in Michigan, in which four students were killed.

“At this time, we have not found that any of the threats are credible,” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said at a Monday afternoon news conference.

But, Elicker added, “we take [threats] very seriously … I want to be clear: when someone makes this kind of threat, it is illegal. You will be arrested, we will find you.”

The spate of threats proliferating on social media has presented police and school officials with the challenge of assessing their seriousness and determining whether to cancel class and close buildings. Given the history of violence on campuses, including last week’s Michigan attack, officials say they prefer to err on the side of caution.

But even those threats that aren’t credible can create stress, cause lost class time and divert police resources. The New Haven threats created “a significant amount of trauma in a community that is already quiet traumatized,’' Elicker said. “With everything going on these past two years, with the shooting incident in the school in Michigan, this is something that not only does our community not need, but it creates great harm.”

Hamden High School will be closed until Wednesday because of an online threat, police said. The school, where a loaded gun was found two months ago, has been closed since Friday.

In Norwich, police were summoned to Norwich Free Academy Monday after security personnel were made aware of a possible threat from a student. The high school was placed on lockdown “out of an abundance of caution,” Norwich police said. Investigators said they found the person who made the alleged threat and are determining whether criminal charges are warranted.

School officials in Manchester are monitoring a possible threat after a Snapchat post stating “All y’all Mhs kids better watch out Monday” was reported.

The spike in school threats has also drawn scrutiny from the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said Brian Foley, a spokesman for the law enforcement agency.

The department “is aware of the trending school threats around the country,” Foley said. “We have reached out to Municipal CEOs, emergency management directors and school district personnel across the state to provide assistance in managing these incidents. We continue to work closely with our local, state and federal partners through the investigations.”

Superintendents across the state are “incredibly concerned,” said Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “No superintendent wants to close a school,” she said. “But if there is a threat, we don’t have a choice.”

Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said officials can’t take a chance when it comes to a threat involving violence.

“We have to take all of these issues incredibly seriously in light of what’s happening across the country,” Dias said. “The consequence of not doing that is really too dire.”

State Sen. Saud Anwar, a Democrat from South Windsor, said he views the threats as part of a larger crisis involving children’s mental health that has overwhelmed pediatric hospital emergency rooms and left parents searching for answers.

“The depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation of children hurting themselves is proportionally a far bigger issue then the threats of violence,” said Anwar, the co-chairman of the legislature’s committee on children.

Those mental health issues “are far more likely at this time,” he added.

“Obviously, some of these lawbreaking activities are based in the mental health crisis that they’re dealing with,” Anwar added.

Dias, the teachers union president, said the pandemic and the shift back to in-person school has added considerable stress to students who have been attending classes remotely or through a hybrid system for more than a year.

“We have a whole [bunch] of students who are out of practice and have a lot of students who returned a little more frustrated, agitated and scared,” Dias said. “There are a lot of challenges.”

Rabinowitz agreed. “There’s grief, there’s anger, there’s loss … communities are trying to reconcile those feelings and our students are feeling the same.”

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