Many school districts in central and northern New York have faced threats following the Florida high school shooting last month. It has resulted in school shutdowns and arrests of some students for making terroristic threats. As law enforcement aggressively investigates these incidents, some experts say it is a lack of emotional skills that is causing them.
A 16-year-old Syracuse charter school student was arrested in February for posting a video on social media that showed him using a BB gun at home and making a comment about “school shooting skills.” Syracuse Police Sergeant Rick Helterline said they do not know what his intent was, but law enforcement has to assume the worst.
“I can’t say that he was just talking, but I also can’t say that he wasn’t planning something down the road," Helterline said. "These are difficult to determine but we have to err on the side of caution to ensure safety. This could be a worst case scenario. This could be a cry for help. If we ignore it, something tragic could happen as a result.”
Another 16-year-old was arrested in Cayuga County for threatening the Cato-Meridian School District and students, again on social media. Sheriff Dave Gould said the intent does not matter; if it is a violation, they will be arrested.
“These kids got to understand it’s not a joke anymore," Gould said. "It’s not fun. It’s not funny. They’ve got to realize that these are very serious incidents. They’re going to be prosecuted and it’s going to stay with them for the rest of their lives. They really better be thinking and not trying to show off anymore because it’s not going to be tolerated by any police agency in this country.”
West Genesee Superintendent Christopher Brown said he has probably dealt with more than 50 school threats throughout his career. He said there is usually a wave of copycat threats after a real shooting.
“In a lot of these cases, students or adults want their fame, as they see it in their heads, of putting out that copycat threat," Brown said. "That’s where I think the police influence is real helpful. I think it’s good for parents and teachers, even fellow students to know, that when something does happen, even if it’s a non-credible threat, that there can be consequences. That’s huge I think.”
Brown said do not assume these threats are always a mental health issue.
“Sometimes students feel like it’s their last step," Brown said. "If they’ve been bullied, or they feel they are in a negative situation at home, or there is no hope, it can take the human brain and make it do some pretty weird things.”
Brown said he has added extra social workers, psychologists and is putting together a wellness clinic in his district.
Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University, said when someone feels powerless, making a threat can feel powerful.
“Suppose you felt unloved and unlovable and alienated from earliest years," Honig said. "And then in high school, no girl who’s cutesy will say even good morning to you, and you’re not good at sports, or you make a bad mistake blurting out something in class and everybody laughs at you. Then the rage and the hatred of yourself, you can’t bear it, so you push it outward onto others.”
Honig said students should be taught emotional skills.
“What helps is talking about how would it feel if someone said this about me, how would it feel if someone threatened these things in our school, how can we be more kind toward others who are sitting all alone at a table,” Honig said.