Right before winter break, schools in Seattle experienced an uptick in threats of violence that rattled the community, heightened student anxiety and resulted in criminal charges for a teenager. 

The string of threats in Seattle Public Schools could have been set off by a highly publicized Michigan school shooting that resulted in the deaths of four students; experts say there are often threat spikes in the aftermath of school shootings.

But something else may also be at play. District officials say the increase in threats has been an issue since students returned to in-person school full time. The pandemic may be fueling some of the threats, they say.

“We have a pandemic that we’re already kind of depleted from somewhat and now you layer back on what we’ve always struggled with these past 20 years with school shootings and violence on campuses,” said Erin Romanuk, a student-support-services manager at Seattle Schools. 

There were at least seven threats of violence directed at Seattle Schools in the first weeks of December. The threats forced lockdowns at some schools, caused classes to be canceled and prompted educators at two high schools to stage sickouts

School threats have become the “modern version of pulling the fire alarm,” said Jimmy Hung, chief of the juvenile division at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The consequences for making a threat, even if it’s in jest, can be severe. 

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Charges were filed this month against a 17-year-old student who threatened to carry out a school shooting at Franklin High School last month. The student is being charged with one count of felony harassment for “threatening to kill” and false reporting, according to court documents filed with the King County Superior Court. 

The threats at Seattle schools turned out to be hoaxes. But all threats, even if they are pranks, are taken “immensely seriously,” said Hung

The Franklin student called Seattle police to flag officers about a social media post, Hung said, and identified another student who allegedly made the threat. But that student denied making the threat. During the investigation, the student who made the initial report told police she made it all up and was playing a joke on a friend, he said.

“That landed poorly with me because it caused a great disturbance to the school and the community,” Hung said. “What irked me more than anything was false reporting and blaming another student.”

The student who was charged created a social media account, pretending to be another student, court documents show. The student threatened to kill students in multiple personal messages to other students on social media. The threats included racial slurs, homophobic slurs and profanities.

The hoax created a ripple effect. Classes were canceled at Franklin High for two days, once because of the threat and for a second day when educators called out sick en masse. Educators said they needed time to process the stress caused by the threat, and what they perceived as a lack of support from Seattle Schools. 

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In early January, Seattle students organized a rally outside district headquarters to demand stronger safety protocols and more mental health resources. The students also called for more time and space to process traumatic events. 

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Over the last seven or eight years, Hung said, he has reviewed hundreds of cases where students have made violent threats. In only a few cases did he believe a student “actually posed a serious threat.”

“This comment isn’t meant to minimize the seriousness of this,” Hung said. “But in these cases, I look at the intent of the kid and the impact on the community. The impact is always going to be great whenever a threat is made to schools. People are rightfully concerned, parents are alarmed, law enforcement is on hyper-alert and a lot of resources are put toward that.”

If prosecuted, Hung said, most are charged with felony harassment, which can result in up to 30 days in juvenile detention and six months of probation. 

However, most minors don’t end up serving time in juvenile detention, Hung said, because that “creates a situation where our community would be less safe once that kid gets out.” 

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“Although we should be concerned, the appropriate concern isn’t always the max punishment, especially young people who are likely behaving in this way because they’re in a delicate and vulnerable state of mind,” Hung added. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know when locking human beings in a cage unnecessarily, they don’t usually come out better.”

School threats rising

Student arrests in connection to school threats have also occurred elsewhere in Washington and around the country. In December, educators and law enforcement were on alert after rumors circulated of a TikTok trend encouraging students to commit acts of violence at school. 

The intensity and frequency of threats spiked between Thanksgiving break and the first few weeks of December, Romanuk said. And it fits into the pattern that the district has seen since the start of the school year.

The number of calls the district has received since September for student supports and assessments — including when students make violent threats — has gone up 56% since before COVID-19, she said. 

When Romanuk first started working for Seattle Schools in 2011, her sole responsibility was to do “threat assessments,” which are triggered when a student says something concerning or violent in class or makes a threat on social media. Assessing threats includes speaking with students, families and staff and putting together a care and safety plan for students. 

After an assessment is made, a threat assessor follows up with students every week and continues to evaluate whether they pose a risk to students and staff, Romanuk said. Sometimes students are referred to mental health providers, counselors or mentoring programs. 

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The district assesses the intentions behind the threat, tries to determine if the student has access to weapons and finds out what kind of planning, if any, went into the threat, Romanuk said. Each situation is different and the district’s role is to provide support for the student and family and look at what needs to change in schools so threats don’t continue to happen. 

“These are still young people who are learning and kind of expanding and testing some boundaries and in some cases really having some significant mental health needs,” Romanuk said. The threat-assessment process is designed to help identify those needs, she said, and create a safe space for students at school.

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There are always complex, underlying factors that lead students to make threats. It’s important students realize threats are taken seriously and could have long-lasting consequences, Romanuk said, “which I don’t think some think about because they’re kids.”

Most of the recent threats in Seattle were posted to social media, where it’s easy to make anonymous serious threats with a few keystrokes. 

During the pandemic, students have been interacting online more than in person, and “We all know everyone’s filter is not what it should be [on social media] at least with kids,” said Cassie Mulivrana, president of the Washington State Association of School Psychologists.

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After learning from home for so long, students haven’t had practice dealing with their frustrations and emotions in front of people, Mulivrana said. Sometimes young people don’t realize there are consequences to saying violent things, even if they don’t intend to act on them.

“Dealing with those real-time frustrations where you can’t just turn off the computer and walk away from it and the person is right in front of you that’s making you frustrated, those are definitely challenges for our kids and it’s been there since prior to the incident in Michigan,” Mulivrana said.

After being out of school for more than a year, many students lost social and emotional skills. Educators are having to work harder to make connections and create a positive school climate.

“We already know that anxiety is at an all-time high for students right now and we’re seeing it now more than ever,” Mulivrana said. “When you add that insecurity of feeling unsafe in a school setting, that’s only going to compound it and make it harder for students to feel comfortable and safe and learn at school.”