Prudence and panic in an age of frequent school lockdowns

EVERETT — It’s not supposed to seem normal, or routine.

These days, when so many people carry smartphones, word of a lockdown or a threat at a local school can spread instantly.

Mix in young people, social media and television news helicopters, and incidents that appear minor in retrospect can generate a lot of attention and emotion.

Schools have a duty to take threats seriously, keep students safe and to communicate with parents and the public. There’s also the concern of distraction from their mission of education.

With threats — say a vague post on Instagram or a bomb threat scrawled on a bathroom mirror — schools have to consider whether the level of attention given will reward bad behavior or encourage copycats.

Lockdowns and threats have repeatedly shut down schools in Snohomish County this year.

“More publicity gives more of these people more ideas,” said Molly Ringo, an assistant superintendent for Everett Public Schools.

The schools must have a clear message that threats should not be a part of day-to-day life, she said.

“It’s not the norm. It’s not accepted,” Ringo said. “We have to help students understand that.”

It’s not clear whether there are more lockdowns and threats than in the past, or if we just hear about them more often. The schools don’t keep track. Neither do police. Nor does the state.

In Everett, lockdowns happen a few times a year on average, district-wide, said Everett police Sgt. Tim Reeves, who oversees the school resource officers. Most lockdowns are prompted by police activity nearby, he said. Usually, a lockdown is meant to keep people out of the way as the police search for someone who is running away from them. A police dog tracking a suspect and a playground full of curious children is not a good combination.

“We don’t advise lockdowns without full considerations of the effects it can have,” Reeves said. “It can interrupt the school activities. It can interrupt the instruction. We take into consideration location, the distance and the crime that’s involved.”

School safety has become a more pressing conversation than it was for past generations. That’s especially true in Snohomish County after the 2014 killings at Marysville Pilchuck High School. Schools are dealing with the constant concern of something serious happening as well as the spurious threats that happen all over the county.

Preparedness is important, Ringo said. Drills and lockdown practices help make sure students and families know what to do in an emergency and why, she said.

Every time there’s an incident, Everett schools spokeswoman Mary Waggoner reminds herself of three messages she needs to get out: What is happening, what the district is doing about it and what parents can do. The district aims for a tone that is reassuring, not alarming.

At the same time, people want information instantly, and accuracy doesn’t happen in a flash. The wait for confirmed information can fuel anxiety, Ringo said, even after a threat has been deemed a hoax.

“It foments and builds and takes on a frenzy,” she said. “How do you maintain calm? How do you focus on the work and the learning?”

Not all Snohomish County school districts take that approach. Some have insisted on keeping quiet about basic details that are routinely released by other districts, such as a general sense of the nature of the threat. The vagueness creates a void that often gets filled with rumors and speculation.

Students making bogus threats can face serious consequences, often emergency expulsion. A few Everett students have been expelled under those circumstances in recent years, Sgt. Reeves said. Most school threats in the region are traced to a suspect in high school or middle school, he said.

It’s more than a nuisance. In Marysville, a series of bomb threats in 2015 generated regional news coverage. The team helping the Marysville Pilchuck community with recovery said those events tore at the “layers of healing.”

A string of bomb hoaxes at Glacier Peak High School in the Snohomish district this school year led to the student bathrooms being locked down. A student later confessed and was expelled.

Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives have recommended felony charges. That student has since turned 18. Her case remains under review by prosecutors.

Making a threat to a school can be a felony offense, and such threats aren’t the only way kids make trouble.

In Mukilteo, a 15-year-old boy who allegedly set off fireworks in a stairwell at Kamiak High School in October also is facing potential felony charges. Police have asked prosecutors to consider a felony charge called “malicious placement of an explosive.”

Not only did the incident spark a lockdown and fear, an Everett police officer was involved in a traffic collision while responding to what authorities believed were gunshots inside the high school.

A threat can generate a lockdown, but a lockdown can be interpreted as an immediate danger, which is rarely the case. When dealing with all of it, a good working relationship between the police department and the schools goes a long way, Reeves said.

That relationship has become closer as the thinking about school safety has changed, Waggoner said.

“It’s comforting for us to know we will be contacted immediately when there’s activity even in the vicinity of the school that could impact our families,” she said.

The majority of lockdowns are initiated by police. Still, officers have made clear to Everett school officials that they can decide to put their schools in lockdown, Reeves said. That was part of district-wide safety training last year that included a conversation about responding to a shooting.

School staff know their campuses and they can recognize when something’s wrong, Reeves said. Everett also has officers assigned full-time to high schools and middle schools and they check on elementary schools during the day. Those officers are part of the vigilance and violence prevention, Ringo said.

According to Reeves, the officers can “deal with things before they get to a higher level and kids will seek them out and provide information that can be helpful in those situations.”

Most students, especially high-schoolers, understand that making a threat is a bad idea, Reeves said.

“If the kids didn’t understand that, we would get them every single day,” he said. “… I think the awareness level is higher than it has been. I think people are more aware of their surroundings than they used to be. Sometimes kids are looking for attention and this is one way they seek it.”

Everett schools are making changes to keep up with the times.

They used to ban students from using their phones in an emergency, Ringo said. Now the idea is to encourage them to let their parents know they’re OK, she said.

A decade ago, schools sent kids home with a piece of paper at the end of the day. Such letters, usually from principals, still often release more information than is provided to the rest of the community.

A letter alone is not enough anymore, Waggoner said. It’s not quick enough, either. More schools are using social media, automated calls, websites and text messages.

They’ve also provided new ways for students to report concerns, including texts and email. Posters with information are all over Everett schools. There’s also a reliance on student leaders to create a culture of openness.

“We need to be more attuned to helping use social media and not fight it,” Ringo said. “That’s the world our students are living in.”

Schools always have been places where society’s problems also manifest, Waggoner said. The increased security is a part of that. School has to be a safe place to learn and grow. There’s no foolproof way to handle every threat or every burglar on the loose down the block. The police and the schools work on each case together, and try to assess the validity of any threat, Reeves said.

Hardly a week passes without some kind of safety meeting at the district, Ringo said. Today’s parents, even when their kids are in elementary school, are learning about lockdowns, threats and emergency preparedness.

“We’ve come a long ways,” Ringo said. “It takes constant work.”

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