By Jennifer Eisenbart
It has been a difficult year when it comes to threats made at schools in the western Racine County area.
Perhaps that’s most prevalent in the Burlington Area School District, which – while still dealing with a student threat of killing classmates – had its second threat at Burlington High School this fall.
Whether or not there are more threats these days, the world is certainly more aware of them, said Dr. Steve Braam, a psychologist who practices at Clinical Psychology Associates in Burlington.
“We know it better and we understand it better and we’re more aware of it now,” Braam said. “A lot of it has to do with awareness.
“Before Columbine, we weren’t aware,” he added. “It didn’t capture us the way it has since then.
“It certainly changed things, that’s for sure.”
The Columbine incident, where two high school seniors at Columbine High School murdered 12 students and a teacher, was the incident that set the precedent.
Braam said youngsters’ fascination with violence and situations like Columbine can lead to more threats.
“Our kids are much more used to violence than ever before,” Braam said. “I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
Since then, there have been too many school shootings to count. The awareness of those situations has brought action plans into place, ranging from tabletop exercises by area police working in tandem with school districts to a Safe School Initiative published by the United States Secret Service in 2002.
The Secret Service report identified, among other things, the importance of obtainable information before an attack. Using the Exceptional Case Study Project that was started in 1992, the Secret Service looked to find behaviors that could precede an attack in hopes of stopping it.
Braam said there are criteria that can indicate whether or not a threat is simply chatter between students – or something dangerous.
Some of those criteria are:
- A threat aimed at specific targets.
- A plan in place.
- A history of violence or threats in the past.
- Stressors, such as a death in the family, or some criminal act or trauma.
- A history of mental illness.
“When you know what it is you’re looking for, you can put the pieces together really easily,” Braam said.
However, hindsight is definitely 20-20. The good news is that students are more aware and are reaching out to trusted adults.
“We’re not only trying to educate the adults, but the children,” Braam said.
Braam said a large part of the puzzle is teaching children how to respond appropriately when they see something like that happening around them.
“A lot of parents have done a good job of educating their children,” Braam said. “(Children) don’t always know who to turn to. If someone says something like that, they don’t know who to tell.
“Kids certainly need to be able to trust their teachers and their guidance counselors and their principals,” he added. “They need to talk about that. They don’t have to make a decision what to do about that.
“They just need to be able to tell someone about it.”
And Braam was pleased with the way Burlington Area School District officials and the City of Burlington police responded to the student threat at Karcher Middle School earlier this month.
“In the cases we’re talking about in Burlington, they at least got it right,” he explained. “You can’t dismiss that. You don’t have the ability to make that kind of evaluation.
“The police, they got it right,” he added.
But in a world where violence is becoming increasingly part of everyday life, Braam also thought it might be a time to move away from hyperbole, from people venting frustration with threats of violence no matter how unlikely they are to perform them.
“I think it’s about time we change our language,” Braam said. “I think we have to do so in terms of our feelings.
“Violence is just way too prevalent in the world today,” he added. “When we use it in common language, we’re telling our children that’s OK – and it’s not.”
According to BASD Superintendent Peter Smet, the Dec. 14 threat found at Burlington High School was not specific to any one person or the student body as a whole.
A student saw the threat in the bathroom wall and shared it via social media. Staff then became aware of the threat.
Students were held in their classrooms or activity areas while police checked the situation and confirmed there was no danger, Smet said.
It came on the heels of an incident involving two Karcher Middle School students who are now charged for a conspiracy to commit murder. They allegedly discussed and created a hit list that specified students by name.
Smet said Tuesday that other school districts are dealing with similar threats – often seen as copycat events.
“I think any time we deal with teenagers who sometimes make bad decisions …
you have to err on the side of caution and determine safety,” he added. “Situations like this are exacerbated by cell phones and social media.”
Waterford Union High School was forced to deal with a threat that was circulated via social media in mid November. The district brought in the Racine County Sheriff’s Department to investigate and then worked to return to normal as soon as possible after the threat was deemed to have no credibility.
“Those things happen,” Superintendent Keith Brandstetter said at the time. “We deal with them and move on.”