Impact of school threats hits deep


February 8, 2019

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Havre Police Senior Officer Justin Gomke watches over students at Havre High School this morning. The Havre Police Department increased its presence in the Havre School District after a cryptic message was found in a boys bathroom Nov. 8, at Havre High School. Along with the Havre police, the Hill County Sheriff's Office is adding extra patrols at Havre schools.

In the past year, Havre schools have seen at least four reported threats and while nothing has come of them, their impact is still felt deep within the community.

Havre Police Chief Gabe Matosich said that each threat takes up resources from the department. Officers who are working other cases or patrolling in different areas get pulled from their areas and have to come assist, he added.

Matosich said there are also financial implications to the department. In some situations, they'll have to call in officers who are off duty and that's when overtime starts to factor in.

"It's starting to create a financial burden just in overtime costs, you know, to investigate the threat," he added.

Even officers that are on duty, Matosich said, can be asked to stay on long past when their shift is supposed to have ended and work 16 to 18 hours in a shift.

He added that there was a time during one school threat investigation that he called in two officers to just handle the extra call volume that was coming in that day. Matosich said even while the investigation continues, the general public still calls in to report crashes and thefts.

The investigations do not just pull officers from current cases, but it also adds to them, Matosich said.

"It'll go up from the patrol and it'll go through the ranks through detectives and lieutenants and ultimately through the assistant chief and myself," he said. "So then we spend a lot of time and resources and dedication into figuring it out."

In the event that the police department is understaffed, Matosich said, they will call on Hill County Sheriff's Department to allocate resources to assist. If that isn't enough, they can call on the Border Patrol, Montana Highway Patrol and the FBI for assistance as well, he added.

"So now we're pulling resources from other agencies, too, and of course they have caseloads," Matosich said. "They have limited resources and when they commit members to our department to assist us and we're pulling resources away from the county residents and other law enforcement agencies, too. So it has an impact there, as well."

Matosich said the investigations also take up a lot of time. The police have to interview witnesses and it takes time to track down all those witnesses.

He added that they might have video footage which requires hours to go over, and information from witnesses could also create further questions, which means officers may have to re-interview certain people or conduct further investigations.

Other departments that could be impacted by a school threat are the Juvenile Probation Office, the District Court and the County Attorney's Office, Matosich said.

"They all could be potentially involved, especially if we charge somebody for making a threat," he added. "If we have a suspect or if they ultimately get charged with a crime, then it kicks all these other departments into play."

Should a juvenile be charged with a felony, Matosich said it requires his staff to transport the youth to a juvenile detention center in Cascade County which logs more hours in transportation costs and overtime costs. Even if Cascade County can come pick up the youth, hours are still spent waiting for the transport to arrive, he added.

"So now you've got a burden and costs associated to Cascade County, too, for their transportation costs and their overtime costs as well," Matosich said.

If a youth is held in jail, then that cost affects the County Commissioners' budget, Matosich said. The commissioners are billed for every night the youth is held until their hearing.

One unexpected area that could be impacted by school threats is local business. Matosich said when Havre High is on lockdown, students cannot leave campus, so the students who usually go off campus for lunch are now unable and this affects the earnings for local businesses.

Matosich added that school threats also put a burden on parents and their daily routine, which could include their employers or business.

The threats, of course, create problems at the schools, as well, he said, specifically the students and faculty who should be at the schools to learn and teach.

"Our main goal is to keep students and faculty safe," Matosich said.

In the schools

Havre Public Schools Superintendent Andy Carlson said that he wishes he could convey to the students the severity of something like a school threat.

Carlson added that school threats disrupt school schedules and the days where school is canceled could potentially result in days being added on at the end of the school year, depending on how many hours are lost. He said Montana has switched over to an hours-based metric instead of days.

Carlson said he can see the impact that the school threats have had on the teachers at the high school. He added that he felt like the extra hours and the stress started to wear on them.

"I know it wears on them. You can see it," Carlson said. "I really felt for folks at the high school. They were tired."

He added that while his job function isn't disrupted as much during school threats, he does feel the stress from the situation. Carlson said he hears from a lot of parents who are concerned about the safety of their child and he understands how hard it is to sit and wait.

Being a parent himself, Carlson said, it's hard for him to separate being a father and being a school superintendent.

"It's impossible," he added. "... In those situations I try not to be 'dad.'"

He said he understands why parents are upset because he knows there's nothing like the love a parent has for their child.

It also frustrates him, he said, when these types of situations happen because it then becomes the focal point for some time. He added that kids and faculty do great things every day, but all that gets overshadowed by incidents like a school threat.

Every situation is unique, he added, and after every situation, the school reviews its Threat Assessment procedures.

Carlson said one of the things they are trying to do is teach kids from an early age that while they're on the playground, they can't say things such as "I'm going to kill you."

He said the faculty have done a good job teaching the standard response procedures to their students.

Teachers are now being asked to do much more than just teach, Carlson added. He said when he was in school, they didn't go over Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate training like teachers have to today.

Carlson said that he wants the community to know that safety is their priority and they'll what they have to ensure that.

"These situations aren't just unique to Havre," he added. "It seems like there's always another incident popping up in the news."

He said he feels that the schools are lacking in their capacity to handle students that may have mental health issues. The counselors that are on campus are there to help more with academics, Carlson added, and he feels "they have a lot on their plates."

Havre High School Counselor John Ita said it is a common misconception that school counselors are equivalent to licensed psychiatrists. He added that counselors can handle some personal issues if they relate to the classroom but are available to primarily help for academic guidance.

He added that the other counselor, Julie Monson, is licensed for personal counseling and can speak with students regarding personal issues.

Ita said one of the roles they play during a school threat situation at the high school is to check on the students and see if they're impacted in any way.

"These school threats can bring up a lot of issues at the home," he added, "so we just try and touch base with them."

Ita said some kids have anxiety issues which are exacerbated during school threats. The counselors also have to deal with parents who pull their kids from schools because they feel it is unsafe.

Monson said the counselors also help out in any way that the office needs them to. During the lockout, the counselors escorted students to their parents to be picked up at the end of the day, she added.

Ita said if another school in Havre receives a threat, then they will call to ask if those counselors need assistance.

He added that his biggest fear is that faculty and students will become desensitized to the threats.

Monson said she has seen some students become desensitized already.

Ita said a group of students from different grade levels were brought in to meet with administrators some time ago and they were asked if they knew of any peers who might carry out a threat.

"All the kids, in unison, said 'yes,'" he added.

After the school threat has passed, Ita said, the counselors work with the faculty to arrange drills for the students. For example, teachers might be asked to go over how to barricade a door during a lockdown with their students, he added.

Monson said that she and Ita have undergone ALICE training, as well, and are constantly looking for new training tips.

She added that she thinks the primary impact that school threats have on faculty, students and parents is a heightened level of anxiety.

Ita said society has to try and strike a balance between having free and open institutions, but also accepting some of the risks that come with that.

"We can make ourselves 100 percent safe, but nobody wants to live in that society," he added.

Ita said that he believes that teachers have become more perceptive of their students and can tell when something is bothering them. Having that extra support system there for the students helps the counselors, as well, he added.

"I think Havre Public Schools is on top of a lot of stuff," he added. "We're not perfect. There's always room for training and improvement. I honestly believe that every building is short of counselors. We could all use more counselors."

The wider picture

The Educator's School Safety Network is a national, non-profit organization that is dedicated to training teachers about school safety.

The organization conducted an analysis of the 2017-2018 school year regarding the frequency of school threats and posted the information on the organization's website.

The analysis says "other than a series of reports, there are no publicly accessible national data on current threats and incidents of violence in schools."

The report continues by saying the numbers gathered were based on reports from the media surrounding school threats. It acknowledges that in the days following the Parkland High School shooting of last year, reports of school threats were coming in at such a high rate that media outlets grouped them together.

Regardless, the organization said this disclosure should not take away from the significance of the data.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 3,380 threats were reported nationwide. This was a 62 percent increase from the 2016-2017 school year, the report said. The spring of 2018 saw 1,494 more threats than were recorded in the fall of 2017 which had 942. This is a 159 percent increase.

The most common medium used to deliver threats was social media with 39.2 percent of threats involving social media in some form. Threats were discovered in writing on schools 20 percent of the time and most commonly in the bathroom.

A significant increase was found in the number of guns that were discovered on campuses nationwide from the 2016-2017 school year, which had 21, to the 2017-2018 school year, which had 77. This jump is a 267 percent increase.

Havre Daily News/File photo

Havre Middle School stands locked down March 11 afternoon after a shooting threat was found written on a bathroom wall. The school is back in session today with increased policed presence and elevated security thoughout the Havre district.


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