When Schools Should Notify Parents of a Threat to Safety

When schools should notify parents of a threat

As you may be aware, a troubling incident involving Eleanor Roosevelt High School in the Washington, D.C. area recently made national news. A 17-year old male, not a student at the school, made a threat to attack several individuals and “shoot up the school.” Police obtained an emergency search warrant and found an AK-47 assault weapon with 180 rounds of ammunition in the boy’s home. He was arrested before the violence could be perpetrated, thanks to the reporting of his ex-girlfriend who had received text messages threatening violence. The threats were reported on June 14; the attack was alleged to have taken place on June 17; a letter was sent to parents on June 20. The school district has come under fire for the delay in notifying parents of the situation.

This situation and ensuing dialogue over parent notification prompted Dr. Mike Robinson of Forest of the Rain Productions to contact me to clarify a few things for his listeners. Mike wanted to know my thoughts on exactly when schools should notify parents of the existence or possibility of a threat, and what types of considerations can impact that timeline.

I was happy to talk with him and it really started me thinking about the fact that most preK-12 schools do not have a policy in place that spells out this action. The Clery Act specifies the types of situations that must be included in a “timely warning” notification on college campuses. These details are discussed in the interview and transcript below, and can be found in the 2016 Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting.

Even though there is no mandate regarding a timely notification policy for non-postsecondary schools, I think all schools would be well-served by drafting this type of policy.

If you’d like to listen to the interview, you can access it here.

If you’d prefer to read the transcript, you can view it below.

Dr. Robinson: What are some of the factors you have to consider when determining when to notify parents of a potential threat of violence to a school?

Suzanne Sibole: That’s a great question. The school has to consider the safety of everyone, first and foremost. If the threat is imminent, it’s unlikely that there will be time for immediate notification of parents. Instead, the school will be focused on taking safety measures.

If the threat is not imminent but is still concerning, the first thing the school administration needs to do is contain it by assessing the person making the threat, and moving that person toward help or intervention. This might mean connecting him or her with a mental health intervention or contacting law enforcement.

It will most certainly involve contacting the threatener’s parents if the person is a student. Once necessary safety measures are in place, the school can think about contacting other parents. (Safety measures could include increased security, vigilance of the student, daily backpack or locker checks, and other management strategies, depending upon the level of threat and the timeline involved.)

Dr. Robinson: How do you balance safety, the desire of parents and the community to know details of a threat and the structure of a school or school system?

Suzanne Sibole: I think we need to recognize & acknowledge that parents are extremely worried and fearful of violence occurring in their child’s school. Clearly, it is not irrational to have this concern about schools and other public places, as we are seeing an increase in this type of targeted violence.

I think it’s smart for the school to reach out to parents as soon as feasible and let them know that their children are safe and they simply want to inform the parents of a situation that is concerning, and to assure them that they are taking action to ensure safety.

If the school has a threat assessment team, they should mention that the team has evaluated the threat and has put a number of safety and threat management practices in place.

If police have been contacted, they should say so, and provide at least enough information for parents to feel that their concerns are being acknowledged and respected. They can make a statement that certain details must be held confidential because the person of concern is a minor, or the investigation is ongoing and cannot be compromised. Parents will typically understand this, but they want to be told whatever can be shared.

If a person of concern threatens specific students, staff members or groups of students, I believe the school has a responsibility to let those targeted individuals (and their parents, if they are students) know, so they can increase their own levels of vigilance and make choices to protect themselves

Dr. Robinson: Do parents have the right to know if students bring or have been found on the grounds with a weapon?

Suzanne Sibole: I believe they do. They don’t need to know the names of students for the reasons mentioned earlier, but they should be informed about what has happened and the actions taken to deal with the situation. They need reassurance that the school is managing the threat effectively, so as many details as possible about police or other intervention should be given.

Shutting parents out is never a good idea. We want our school families to have confidence in our ability to deal with potentially dangerous or frightening situations, and we undermine that when we are not as forthcoming as we can be.

College campuses have an obligation under the Clery Act, to create policy around “timely warning” notification. The types of incidents included under that policy are:

  • Crimes reported to campus security authorities or local police agencies; and
  • Crimes considered by the institution to represent a serious or continuing threat to students and employees.

In the situation with the 17-year old that occurred recently in the Washington DC area, there was no continuing threat at that moment in time once he was arrested, but the first condition was met – it was a crime reported to police. While there is no such requirement in place for non-post-secondary schools, it would be good practice to follow similar guidelines.

Dr. Robinson: Does limiting the information to parents or simply not notifying parents about threat of violence jeopardize the safety of school staff and students once a threat has been made?

Suzanne Sibole: I would say that one danger of not notifying parents is that you have fewer eyes and ears being vigilant for further warning signs. The school may not be able to provide identifying details to parents, but they can tell parents to contact them if they see or hear certain signs in their child or a child’s peer.

Some of these might be:

  • Pictures of anti-heroes or past mass shooters on websites, social media or in a teen’s bedroom
  • A preference for videos, books or magazines with violent themes
  • Journals with violent writings or pictures
  • Rants about a grievance, humiliation or unfair treatment
  • Talk of plans, schedules, or getting even with someone, even if the person says they’re joking
  • Suicidal thoughts – talking as if the future doesn’t matter
  • Weapons of any kind

If we don’t include parents in this process, we might miss an opportunity to pick up on very helpful information that would create a clearer picture of the level of threat we’re facing.

Dr. Robinson: What are some of the reasons why a school may elect not to notify parents of a specific threat of violence to a school, especially one associated with mass violence?

Suzanne Sibole: One reason would be that the school has thoroughly assessed the potential threat and is confident that their training and expertise in this area provided an accurate assessment that the threat is not viable in any way. I would think communication to parents that this occurred would still be warranted, however. As a school, we would want parents to hear it from us and not from another source.

Another reason would be that the school administrators simply don’t know enough about how to handle this type of situation so it hasn’t occurred to them that notifying parents is a good idea, and could yield additional valuable information about the threat. Plus, they are very busy dealing with containment of the threat and ensuring student and staff safety, so it could just be an oversight.

Dr. Robinson: Is safety of the students and staff increased by limiting the information about the threat, as a means to decrease misinformation and thwarting an ongoing law enforcement investigation?

Suzanne Sibole: I would have to hear the rationale for that assertion and consider all angles of it. I think that in most situations, parents could be given some information, however minimal. As in a number of ongoing law enforcement investigations, the public is often given a brief summary and asked to report any information that could be helpful to law enforcement.

That said, it is possible that a school could have concerns that releasing information could spur a copycat.

Dr. Robinson: What role, if any, does the size of the school or the size of the school district impact the decision of school officials to notify parents?

Suzanne Sibole: I don’t think the size of the school or district should alter this course of action. It may take longer to send out notification in a larger district than a smaller district, simply because there are more layers through which decisions may have to filter.

Dr. Robinson: How can school districts temper the need for parents to know, especially in this day of technology, with policies that may require many checks and balances before information is released?

Suzanne Sibole: Again, I think it’s very important to respectfully acknowledge parents’ desire for information and to provide at least some information about the events.

I think school staff can review policies and regulations so they will know ahead of time, which types of information can and cannot be released. Most administrators have an excellent working knowledge of these, and probably most teaching staff do as well. But, there may be school employees who’ve never had this type of training and it could be beneficial for them.

There are actually media protocols in comprehensive school safety plans that outline some ways information can be inadvertently passed along inappropriately, and reviewing these with staff is a good idea.

The reality is that misinformation can spread like wildfire and we can’t really control all of this. If the school district provides a consistent statement to students, parents and any media outlets that inquire, that’s the best they can do.

Dr. Robinson: Where can people contact you if they have questions or would like to bring your services to their school district?

Suzanne Sibole: They can contact me through my website, youthriskpreventionspecialists.com or email me at suzanne.sibole@youthriskpreventionspecialists.com. I’m happy to talk with anyone about making their school safer.