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Shooting threats prompt schools to weigh risks, notifications and lockdowns

UPDATED: Fri., June 8, 2018, 10:49 p.m.

FILE – Spokane Police Officer Larry House stands sentry at the entrance of Lewis and Clark high School on May 30, 2018. The school boosted security on campus in the wake of social media threats. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Spokane Police Officer Larry House stands sentry at the entrance of Lewis and Clark high School on May 30, 2018. The school boosted security on campus in the wake of social media threats. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Public Schools officials say they take every social media shooting threat seriously.

But seriously enough to close school or order a lockdown? That’s a tougher call.

As Spokane schools deal with a second shooting threat in eight days, students, parents and the community have reason to wonder: How do schools and law enforcement decide whether a threat is credible or not?

It’s complicated, said school district spokesman Kevin Morrison.

Extra security was added at Salk Middle School on Friday in response to a threat that surfaced Wednesday on Snapchat. A post was sent to a Salk student and included threats to “shoot up” and “kill” others in the school.

Soon after receiving the threat at Salk, “we were knocking on doors of homes,” talking to the message’s recipients and possible suspects, Morrison said. He added that schools and police officers operate with a checklist to determine the veracity and severity of every threat.

“There’s probably a dozen criteria,” Morrison said.

The biggest is specificity: Does the threat include a name or a school? Which social media platform was used, what was the message and who was the recipient?

“No two of these are ever the same,” Morrison said.

Even the most threatening message must be taken into context, said Morrison, who used the example of a third-grader on the playground vowing “I’m going to kill you.”

The stakes are high: Erring on the side of caution means a wasted day for students and teachers, plus the cost of diverted resources.

And the potential cost of underestimating a threat? Unthinkable.

Last week at Lewis and Clark High School, officials concluded that a threat was not credible.

Those decisions are never made hastily, Morrison said Friday. Police arrested an LC student for making the threats as more than half of students stayed away from school for a day.

“We don’t sleep on these things and neither does the police department,” Morrison said.

At LC and Salk, officials quickly went into threat-assessment mode.

Other considerations – assuming the suspect is still at large – include the suspect’s age and past behavior or problems with the law.

“We look at student records. It all happens very fast,” Morrison said after the Salk incident, the district’s sixth threat this school year.

Still, even a short period of uncertainty can lead to widespread concerns over safety. Last week at LC, more than half the student body stayed home as police worked the case.

Identifying the suspect is the crucial first step. At most schools around the country, failure to do that usually means a lockdown or school closure.

When a suspect is identified and the threat deemed to be not credible, the district routinely adds security to allay fears and possibly deter the suspect.

Last week at LC, police officers were brought on site, but school officials wouldn’t divulge how many.

The reason: fears that someone might try to exploit a gap in police coverage elsewhere.

Protocol is the same in the Central Valley School District.

“We work directly with law enforcement to determine whether it’s something that is credible or not,” said Marla Nunberg, Central Valley School District spokeswoman.

Most Spokane County schools have escaped the rise in shooting threats posted on social media.

For example, in the five weeks following February’s massacre in Parkland, Florida, a school district in San Diego received 19 verified threats. Nine of those cases ended with charges filed against the suspects.

“I hope we get to a point where kids who make these threats realize that this is going to be a real impediment to their futures,” Morrison said.