School threat causes are varied, complex

By David J. Coehrs -

The horrific school shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland Fla., on Feb. 14 did not deter students in the Wauseon, Archbold, and Swanton school districts from making threats against students and staff in the week that followed.

And though a local school psychologist and a state authority can offer potential reasons for the wholesale threats and violence plaguing the country’s school systems, even they’re surprised by the number of incidents.

“There are still a fraction of these events that, we don’t know why this happens,” said Dr. Paul Soska III, past president of the Ohio School Psychologists Association. “(But) our efforts really need to be proactive, because proactive efforts will mitigate these behaviors.”

Over the space of last week, three Wauseon High School students, an Archbold High School student, and a Swanton High School student were detained by police for threats against their school districts. None were found to be in possession of weapons to carry out their threats but all face possible criminal charges.

Dr. Soska said it’s important to note that Ohio’s over 600 school districts are still safe. “By percentage, we are not talking about a lot of violent activity,” he said.

But he admits the nation is experiencing an era of cultural violence fed by feelings of disenfranchisement and sometimes stoked by society’s love of guns. “We start to see this influx of violent activities,” he said.

In the case of students, many of those acting out don’t mesh with their school’s culture and remain on the periphery, he said. Subsequently, what is perceived as their differences can lead to their bullying and harassment.

“These are students that are not appreciably attached to the societal structure and community of their educational environments,” Dr. Soska said. “We would like to include social and emotional components into the school curriculum. We have to be proactive versus reactive.”

He said with all of the emphasis placed on state testing and satisfactory ratings “we sometimes forget about the importance of relationships.”

But there are many other factors that can contribute as well to incidents of student violence, he said. They include a dysfunctional family life, additional pressures not faced by past generations, and exposure to questionable social media.

“We are much more aware that trauma in students’ lives becomes a significant factor,” Dr. Soska said. “We now appreciate that children are being exposed to a lot more situations.”

He added that the over-saturation of media reports on school attacks can cause a contagion effect. “Predictably, in the wake of sensationalized tragedy in the schools, there are going to be subsequent events,” he said. “These are situations where students who are vulnerable or predisposed or at risk (follow through).”

And some are simply copycat events by students who want school to be canceled and don’t consider the serious implications of their actions. “There’s this endless coverage right now…so that certainly, for someone who already had the proclivities or risk factors, that’s going to activate them,” he said.

Esther Rupp, psychologist for Archbold Area Schools, said societal changes, exposure to trauma or to technology and social media, and the desensitization of violent acts in media coverage could all contribute to student attacks on school districts.

“A lot of that has played a much larger role in children’s lives,” she said.

The perennial media coverage of school shootings alone may be “bringing it to the attention of kids, and what they can do to get what they want,” Rupp added.

She also calls up the damage inflicted through bullying. “It’s kids not feeling respected and not knowing how to get it. Kids who may have been bullied for a longer period of time may feel a greater need to do something more dramatic to get the attention or revenge they’re seeking.

“It’s important that the school district makes an effort to make sure nobody feels disconnected, isolated, and hopeless. Kids might not feel supported enough at school or at home, so they don’t know where to turn to. They feel they’re not of value and have to resort to violence.”

Rupp doesn’t discount the active role parents should have in their children’s emotional growth.

“It’s hard to assign responsibility to parents, but they play a large factor in monitoring the activities of their kids,” she said. “Communication is key. Make sure they’re continually talking to their kids and monitoring all their devices. That’s important for them – to have a good idea what’s going on in kids’ lives.”

Dr. Soska said there is a belief among some parents that the school district is solely responsible for their children during schools hours.

“That is completely backward thinking. Parents don’t get to abrogate their responsibility. (They) have a sizable contribution here,” he said.

Parents must understand it can be damaging to be unavailable or disengaged with their children, or to use the Internet or video games as a babysitter, the Dr. Soska said.

“They are the first part of relationship building. Unfortunately, when you’re not…cultivating day-to-day life activities children will get into mischief.”

There are signs of potential trouble that parents, teachers, and fellow students can watch for. Rupp advised taking notice of children experiencing sudden negative changes including an interest in violent video games. They may become more isolated and stop interacting with others. If a friend notices changes, they should encourage the person to speak with a trusted adult.

“Schools attempt as much as possible without being able to see the kids 24/7,” Rupp said. “In my experience, we do a pretty good job overall. And it may be easier for the smaller districts to monitor what’s going on.”

Both Rupp and Dr. Soska said that despite the frequency with which the school attacks are occurring they’re still surprised by the numbers.

“We want the school to be a safe and affirming environment for students and staff,” Dr. Soska said. “We want to watch for students who are isolated or marginalized. We want to empower everyone to be mindful of what someone may be posting on social media. If (the students) are outliers, there is something we can do. These students really do need relationships and to be attached to their school environments.”

By David J. Coehrs

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-330-1812.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-330-1812.