Ore. schools see rise in threats following deadly Mich. school shooting

A string of recent threats across multiple school districts has parents, students and teachers on edge


By Jordyn Brown
The Register-Guard

EUGENE, Ore. — Schools across Oregon have had to respond to multiple threats, real and false, in the past week following the tragedy at Oxford High School in Michigan where a student shot and killed four people and injured seven.

The event in Michigan had ripple effects through the country, with hyper-vigilance and a rise nationwide in similar "copycat" threats circulating via social media and word-of-mouth among students, some as young as 9 years old.

Parents walk away with their kids following a mass shooting at Oxford High School, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Oxford, Mich.
Parents walk away with their kids following a mass shooting at Oxford High School, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Oxford, Mich. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press via AP)

In Oregon, police responded to and investigated threats in the Bethel and Eugene school districts last week that stemmed from social media posts, including a student who was arrested Tuesday at Willamette High School in the Bethel district. On Tuesday, Portland Public Schools also had to issue lockdowns and lockouts for three schools after a student allegedly robbed another with a weapon off campus, then came to school. Lebanon High School also was locked down, and South Albany High School had a false report of threat, as reported by the Albany Democrat-Herald.

"We've spoken to many, many parents this week who are concerned about this across the region," said Kraig Sproles, superintendent of the Bethel School District. "What we're seeing is a lot of our students either hearing about a threat or mentioning it themselves. And we need to take that really seriously."

It's not surprising there were more threat concerns on the heels of Nov. 30 shooting in Michigan, Sproles said, as people often are more anxious following a violent act at schools involving guns.

"So I think that's part of it, but I also just think it's at a time when we as a society are a little bit more on edge and less resilient than we normally would be," he said.

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Bethel had three separate incidents that were reported to staff last week, he said. One was regarding a text back-and-forth between two students in conflict. Another was a student conversation that involved a gun.

Sproles said they took care of that second incident, "but then it kind of took on a life of its own on social media."

The third was regarding a Willamette High School student who said they had a gun at school, prompting students to alert staff and have a brief lockdown Tuesday. When Eugene police responded and searched the student, no weapon was found. The student purported to have a gun and was carrying "another object" that could give the appearance of a gun, Eugene police spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin said Wednesday. The student was arrested for disorderly conduct in the first degree.

Sproles said in each instance, students brought their concerns to an adult they trusted, which is exactly what they should do.

After hearing a student's concerns, Bethel staff are then prompted by their emergency training to take proper action depending on the situation.

"There's a chart in every single room that teachers and other staff can use to get the step-by-step information of what to do in an emergency," Bethel spokesperson Alisha Dodds said. "So regardless of the emergency, they have that information at hand."

Bethel also has training for an active threat called ALICE, a protocol used in schools across the nation, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.

Lessons learned

The biggest thing the recent incidents revealed for the district, though, was it needs to work out a better way of communicating with families in these situations.

"We need better communication with parents, in both communication during an event, and then communication immediately following an event, and in a time when most high school students have cellphones, they are texting their parents or communicating with their parents or community during an emergency totally different than they have in the past," Sproles said.

Inaccurate or incomplete information can easily be spread this way or via social media, and the district isn't always able to match that immediacy in the moment. To improve on this, the district is planning on holding a meeting with Willamette High parents this week, with the central topic of how to better work together.

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"I think for parents, we need a little bit of feedback on the communication they expect during an emergency and what we can commit to providing," Sproles said.

Students also will be having more focused conversations about the incidents in homeroom.

Hoax threats a crime

Up north, Salem-Keizer Public Schools has been dealing with its own incidents, even before the Oxford High shooting. A student at Adam Stephens Middle School in Salem was arrested Nov. 15 after bringing a gun to school. Another student was found in possession of a knife. McKay High School also went into lockdown two days later, with multiple Salem police officers responding to a report of an armed person on campus.

On Friday, the district sent out a joint message with the FBI and state and local law enforcement agencies urging people to recognize that "hoax threats" are still a crime, and to "think before you post" on social media.

"Recently, we have experienced an increase in school threats, rumors of threats and the spread of false information, which has been disrupting our learning environments and creating fear in the community," the release said.

The district and law enforcement investigate every potential threat, the release stated, and recently has had a number of hoax threats of targeted violence against schools often through text message or on social media.

"Hoax threats can result in both arrest by law enforcement and/or suspension or expulsion by the school district," the statement read. "Hoax threats are not a joke, and they can have devastating consequences — both for the public and for those who post them."

The threats also cause unnecessary emotional distress to students, staff, parents and the community at large, especially after a year at home in distance learning and with students and staff still working through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It pains me that where we're at with public education in the United States, is that one of our key things that we have to teach our kids is how to deal with weapons and guns on campus," Sproles said.

These concerns and expressions from parents fearing for their child's safety at school is not normal, but have become more normalized because of the number of school shootings over the past 10 years, he said.

"A student should not have to learn social studies and reading and writing and how to respond in the in the case of a gun emergency — that should not be part of our core curriculum," Sproles said.

"I know it's where we're at, but it pains me as as a parent and as a school leader to have to continually do this."

What parents can do for kids

After a shooting or another dangerous threat at school, it's normal for students to feel heightened anxiety and some instability in the days following. Here are some things parents and other adults can do to support their children, according to the American School Counselor Association and National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

** First, parents and adults need to deal with and assess their own responses to crisis and stress. It's important that adults struggling with their emotions work through those with other adults, so they can come to the conversation with their child ready to address the child's needs and concerns.

** Be honest with your child about what happened and share with them as much age-appropriate information as they're able to handle. Even if they don't ask about it, it is a good idea to bring the topic up with children, no matter how young they are.

"While we would all want to keep children from ever having to hear about something like this, reality does not allow this," the association states. "Being silent on the issue won't protect them from what happened, but only prevent them from understanding and coping with it."

** Listen to kids' fears and concerns. Reassure them that the world is a good place to be, but that there are people who do bad things. It is helpful for children to realize that it is OK to show a parent or adult when they are upset, which is better than trying to ignore it or work through those emotions on their own.

** Finally, try to keep routines as normal as possible. Kids gain security from the predictability of routine, including attending school, the association says.

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