It was fewer than 48 hours after the mass shooting at a Florida high school when officials in Topsham received word of a threat of gun violence against the high school there. No sooner had they cleared Mt. Ararat High when another threat was received against a nearby elementary school.
Under normal circumstances, a single threat of school violence – let alone two – is rare in the midcoast school district. But these are not normal times in Maine schools.
Since the Parkland shooting nearly three weeks ago, at least a dozen Maine schools have responded to threats of violence, and at least 13 students have been charged with terrorizing their communities. The threats ranged from comments overheard in middle school hallways to a high schooler predicting he would become “notorious” for killing as many as 30 people.
Nationally and in Maine, schools are on high alert because of the mass shooting Feb. 14 that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, one of the deadliest in a growing litany of attacks on American schools. Since then, the number of violent threats and tips has surged. Many of those threats are made through social media and reported to authorities by students.
No community is escaping the effects. Maine schools are adding police officers and reviewing and tightening security, parents and administrators are on edge and hyper-vigilant, and students are organizing protests and demanding adults keep them safe in school.
“Schools are seeing students across the country join their voices together to affirm their right to feel safe in school,” said Brad Smith, superintendent of MSAD 75 in Topsham. “Regardless of the solutions they might propose, all of us, adults and students, hold the common belief that all students should be safe, and feel safe, at school. We need to help replace their fear and worry with trust.”
SCHOOL THREATS SOAR NATIONWIDE
Normally, an average of 10 to 12 threats or violent incidents are reported every day in American schools, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network. Every school day in the week after the Parkland shooting, the group counted more than 50.
The total since Feb. 15 is 638 threats or incidents across 794 schools. That statistic includes incidents that turn out to be hoaxes or false alarms. Nearly 300 threats were specifically related to guns, and more than half were delivered on social media. Every state has received at least one school threat in the past two weeks.
Amanda Klinger, director of operations at the Educator’s School Safety Network, said copycat behavior is common after incidents of violence, even after those less serious than the attack in Parkland. Widespread social media use and sustained media attention on the attack could also be contributing factors to the spike, she said.
“We’re seeing a really incredible uptick since the shooting in Parkland,” Klinger said. “We were going from about 10 threats per day to around 70 as an average in the wake of Parkland.”
In Maine, the state only collects data on school bomb threats, which total fewer than 20 a year. General threats or threats of gun violence are not tracked.
Sen. Rebecca Millett, a Democrat whose district includes South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and part of Scarborough, introduced a late-session bill that would have required the Maine Department of Education to publish annual reports on incidents involving firearms in schools. The Legislative Council last week voted not to move that proposal forward.
“I think given our world today, it’s very reasonable to assume that this is something we want to have a better understanding of so we can know how serious of an issue this is in our communities,” Millett said. “People seem to be reaching a new level of frustration that I really hope we recognize and honor.”
Millett said she is not done with the issue because of the clear message she is getting from parents, and hopes to reintroduce it in the next legislative session.
Millett was in office in 2012 when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. In the wake of that shooting, she co-sponsored legislation to do a statewide study of school facilities and received many calls and emails from concerned parents. She said she received even more letters from parents after the shooting at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Florida.
“They want their children to be safe. They are angry that in today’s world when they drop off their children, they’re afraid,” she said. “Our children are feeling that way, you can tell. That should not be the case.”
STUDENTS MAKING VOICES HEARD
David Theoharides, the superintendent of Sanford schools, has heard from numerous parents concerned about their children’s safety in school since the Parkland shooting, but not as often from students themselves. Instead, the students are looking for ways to take action in the broader community, something he hasn’t seen after previous school shootings.
“This one is different, though, and I think it’s because the students have started to cry out,” he said. “The voices of our children need to be heard, too.”
Friday afternoon, a small group of local high school students held a rally in Portland and then walked to Sen. Susan Collins’ office to ask for action on gun control. Makayla Rodney, 17, a senior at Thornton Academy who drove from Sanford with her grandmother Nancy Rodney to participate, said she and other Thornton students plan to leave school for the National School Walkout on March 14 as a gun violence protest.
“We know that we can use our rights, and this is one of those times where we are going to stand up for what we believe in,” Makayla Rodney said. She said she is eager to start voting; she is part of a new group called Eighteen in ’18, for students who will become eligible to vote in 2018. For now, though, she’ll use her voice, including giving a speech at the “March for Our Lives” rally in Augusta on March 24.
Rodney said she’s tired of adults telling young people to be quiet.
“I feel like everywhere, they’re like, ‘Ssssh,’ ” she said. “And I’m like, I have a voice. It’s valid.”
She’s speaking out on behalf of her younger siblings as well: her brother in first grade and her sister, who turns 4 this month. “I don’t want to worry about them being safe (in school) while I’m off in college,” Rodney said.
SLEEPLESSNESS, CONSTANT VIGILANCE
Educators at schools across southern Maine say training helps keep students and staff calm after a threat, but it takes constant vigilance to keep them feeling safe at school.
“You have to remain on guard at all times about what could or could not happen at your school,” said Jeremy Ray, superintendent of Biddeford schools.
Ray said students tend to be the first ones to see concerning statements or behavior from their classmates. And now they speak up.
“I think people would be surprised how much information students are willing to share,” he said. “Kids see something and they tend to bring it to us. When you have kids that bring it forward as quickly as they do, it’s because they understand and have seen what could happen. They’re probably living in concern.”
A South Portland High School student was arrested and charged with terrorizing Feb. 15 – the day after the Parkland massacre – for allegedly posting a message on social media about “shooting up the school.” Superintendent Ken Kunin said school officials have met multiple times since the threat to debrief and evaluate their own response.
“Are some people on edge? Absolutely,” he said. “I’m not sleeping as well as I used to. We have 176 school days and there are 176 nights I don’t sleep as well. But I think by and large, students feel pretty safe and comfortable in school. They see a lot of adults around, and they know steps are being taken to ensure safety.”
ENHANCING SECURITY MEASURES
A 17-year-old student at Cape Elizabeth High School was charged with misdemeanor terrorizing Feb. 26 after he posted a message on social media that was interpreted as a threat involving a gun. Principal Jeffrey Shedd said administrators have discussed adding a school resource officer to the high school, and a local police officer has visited regularly since the threat.
“Going forward, he is going to be here two to three hours a day,” Shedd said.
Officials at schools that so far have escaped the rash of threats are having the same discussion. Falmouth, for example, is increasing its police presence at the schools, as well as increasing training and lockdown drills.
School officials hope strengthened security will help reassure students and parents that their schools are safe places to learn.
Smith, the superintendent of MSAD 75, said part of his district’s response to recent threats is to make sure students feel safe going to adults with concerns.
“They need to trust an adult will take that information seriously, and that steps will be taken to address any concerns,” he said.
South Portland High School resource officer Alfred Giusto stands outside the main office as students exit for the weekend on Friday. (Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald)