School threats lead to policy changes

Social media also complicates communication process

By Michael Williamson -

As the threat of violence inside schools becomes a national topic of conversation, districts in Madison County are feeling its effects.

One area of difficulty for schools is how to effectively and accurately communicate situations to parents in a timely, legal fashion — especially in an era when the passing of information is instantaneous.

West Jefferson

Last Friday, Feb. 23, Jefferson Local Schools received a threat of violence by way of social media which prompted an investigation by the West Jefferson Police Department. According to a statement released by the school to parents in the district, “The threat was determined by law enforcement to not be credible.”

District superintendent William Mullet said although police made that determination, the district has decided to add some new policies with regard to safety.

“We’re starting at our buzz-in systems to require folks to show their IDs and to state their business at the school,” Mullet said. “We’re redoubling our efforts and asking police to be more present.”

According to Mullet, the threat came from an adult who was the parent of a student not in West Jefferson schools.

“One of our junior high students sent something on social media to her ex-boyfriend,” said Mullet. “His mother, reacting to the picture, posted something on Facebook threatening violence to the school.”

Mullet said law enforcement was immediately contacted.

“They are able to help trace IP addresses and get to the source,” he said. “They then talk directly to the people. It is actually still under investigation on their part and until they conclude things, we’re stuck in how to inform the community.”

Situations such as this can often present the districts with a dilemma — particularly in the realm of communication. In fact, threats similar to the one in West Jefferson have happened to other schools in the county, including London City Schools and Jonathan Alder Local Schools.

Threats in the county

In all three circumstances the districts received feedback from parents expressing concern that they were not notified about the threats soon enough.

One concerned parent said that they didn’t learn about the threat until days after it was made — and in most cases, parents first learned about it through social media.

A similar threat occurred at London City Schools last week which also turned out to not be credible.

“It is important for us to provide information as much as we can,” said Lou Kramer, London’s superintendent. “We also have to balance the educational rights of all the students involved.”

The threat at London resulted in last Friday’s attendance to drop to 78 percent.

Information and social media

“When something happens, we send out a call on our auto-call system and post it to our website. Then we send the information out on our social media pages,” Kramer said. “It’s also important to us that we get factual information out to people. In the event of an emergency, we’re going to act accordingly. Communication is important but student safety at the time is priority.”

Kramer said that their first move is to call law enforcement, as is the practice with all districts. At that time, the incident is investigated — the detail that can often complicate the communication process. Once law enforcement has been involved, it is their case.

“As a result of the feedback, we have changed some policies and I have drafted an open letter to parents that explains the situation,” Kramer said. “As a parent, I understand the anxiousness, but in those situations, we have a job to do as well.”

The similar occurrences at Jonathan Alder High School circulated on social media before information could be completely put out.

In Alder’s case, a threat was made and Alder superintendent Gary Chapman sent out information to parents before students were notified. When parents asked the students about it, they were unaware anything happened.

“We had some complaints during that process. Information went out so quickly that students didn’t know what happened,” said Chapman. “That’s a difference today. I never had to deal with getting a message out too quickly. That was a unique situation.”

Chapman added that it’s important to the district that communication is made, but that what parents are receiving is credible.

“We’re not going to put out anything until we have accurate information,” he said. “And if it’s criminal, then we have to wait.”

All three districts are altering policies as a result of the national conversation on school safety. They said that they are working hard to make the schools the safest environment possible.

“The reality is, we’re living in a new time right now,” Chapman said. “Social media plays a part in that and trying to get ahead of it is impossible. But that’s why we are working to make this right.”

Social media also complicates communication process

By Michael Williamson

Reach Michael Williamson at 740-852-1616, ext. 1619.

Reach Michael Williamson at 740-852-1616, ext. 1619.