ROCKY RIVER, Ohio - School safety threats, school lockdowns and rumors of security concerns rippled throughout northeast Ohio, and across the nation, following last Monday's shooting at Chardon High School that left three students dead and two others injured.
From Rocky River to North Royalton and Garfield Heights to Springfield Township, reports of bomb threats, sightings of a weapon, a bullet found in a school and school lockdowns came to light in the region. Numerous calls were made to the NewsChannel5 newsroom from parents concerned about safety issues at their child's school.
"I feel a little different than I did B.C. (before Chardon)," one mother told Rocky River School District Superintendent Michael Shoaf, during a Thursday evening community meeting. The meeting was held at Rocky River High School to address a bomb threat and evacuation earlier in the day. Around 125 parents, school staff and community members attended.
Experts said the ripple effect is a normal occurrence nationwide because of instantaneous national media coverage and social media messaging when a school shooting occurs.
"Those threats have probably gotten the parents more unnerved than the students," said Scott Poland, associate professor in the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Poland is an internationally-recognized expert on school violence and youth mental health who has responded to 12 of the nation's highest-profile school shootings.
Parents want answers to questions about school safety, experts said, especially after a high-profile critical incident.
At the Rocky River High School community meeting, parents asked school and police officials nuts-and-bolts questions:
- Why were kids kept on a school bus near the school if officials suspected a bomb might be inside the building?
- What if the school district's computer crashed? Are there hard copies of student emergency information so parents can be contacted?
- Why were students told it was a fire drill when it was actually a bomb threat evacuation?
The key to maintaining parent trust and confidence in school administrators on safety issues begins with school administrators talking to parents about school safety far before a crisis, said Linda Graham, crisis coordinator for the Nettleton Public Schools in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Graham was a school psychologist who helped manage the 1998 shooting at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro that killed four students and a teacher, and injured 10 others.
"A proactive approach to school safety before incidents occur is critical. If you have a school district that is transparent, where parents know up-front and ahead of time that the school is doing everything they can on school safety, when there is an actual bomb threat or other incident, the parents are not freaking out. They will have greater confidence and more trust in the school officials they leave their kids with every day," Graham said.
Graham said her school district posts information on their web site about safety drills they conduct in schools. She also encourages principals to talk with parents and students about school safety before a crisis.
"I encourage principals to let new students and parents know there is a crisis plan and that it is a living, breathing plan, not a document sitting on a shelf collecting dust. We work it and work it. We want them to know we have drills, evacuation sites and parent-student reunification plans," Graham said.
She wants parents not to have second thoughts about safety being a priority in her school district.
"I want parents to be able to say, 'I know these people. I know them by name and I know who I am leaving my kids with each day,'" Graham explained.
Parent Jane Lewins said she asked Rocky River Schools' Superintendent Shoaf for a community meeting about school safety after Monday's shooting in Chardon. Lewins had an unrelated dispute with school officials last year regarding how information had been released to other parents on an incident involving her family.
"I would like to have had this meeting before this happened," Lewins said in reference for a community meeting about safety after the Chardon shooting but before Thursday's bomb threat. "Today's incident had a good outcome, so it went well. If it had been a different outcome, I am not sure we would have the same feelings."
Lewins said her daughter who attends the high school believed Thursday's bomb threat evacuation was a routine fire drill and did not know the seriousness of the threat.
"Ask the kids what it was like not to have the information standing out there. Have some kind of message this is not a fire drill. Ask the kids if there is something we can do differently and incorporate
it into your plans," Lewins said.
"We didn't want anyone setting in their home wondering what was going on," Shoaf said to parents attending the meeting, so the district used its mass notification system, web site and emails to staff during Thursday's bomb threat. He later said he did not want to call a community meeting until he had substantive information to give to parents about the bomb threat incident and a threat list found the week before at Rocky River Middle School.
Rocky River police and school officials responded swiftly on Thursday, with police arresting within hours a 16-year-old student who made the bomb threat call on his cell phone from inside the school.
Shoaf told parents he believes communication is critical to keeping schools safe.
"We are under different times. There is an automatic heightened sense of awareness here and across the nation because of Chardon," Superintendent Michael Shoaf told parents. "If you don't tell us, we are not going to find out. If you tell us, we will take it seriously."
Experts agree on the importance of schools communicating with parents about safety. But some say the burden rests upon parents as much as school officials.
"Parents seldom show up for school safety programs before violence strikes. But when a student dies, the whole community comes out and demands answers," said Stephen Sroka, president of Health Education Consultants in Lakewood and an internationally-recognized expert on school violence, drugs and teen health issues.
Pat Lyden, executive director of the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance (SPEA) in Pepper Pike, knows firsthand the value of reaching out proactively to students to talk about mental health, suicide and other youth safety issues. Her organization works with teens throughout the region on depression and suicide prevention programs.
"SPEA averted a tragedy that may have been similar to the Chardon tragedy, had we not intervened. A student admitted to one of SPEA's instructors that he planned to take his own life and to take many other students with him. He divulged a specific plan, we notified the proper people and the child received treatment. Lives were saved," Lyden said about one incident in a high school outside of Geauga County.
Scott Poland, the school safety and teen suicide expert from NOVA Southeastern University, said school officials often miss a "teachable moment" when ripple-effect threats occur after a high-profile school shooting.
"If I was a high school teacher in the area, I would have put the desks in a circle and asked the kids, 'How do you feel about what's going on?,' and 'What should we do because of these threats and how can we keep our school safe?'," Poland said.
"Few schools ask what kids are thinking and what is on their mind. Instead, we only make assumptions that we already know the answers," Poland noted.