ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Every child deserves to go to school and feel safe, and know that they're safe, but in recent years it seems as though that safety has been threatened with an increase in reported numbers of terroristic threats against schools.
Whether it's a substantiated threat, or chalked up to a joke, officials are reminding students and parents that the consequences are severe.
Information from the Division of Juvenile Justice shows the numbers have increased eight-fold in just the past three years. One threat was reported in the Anchorage area in fiscal year 2016, two in 2017, then they jumped to 13 in 2018, and 16 in 2019. School has only been in back session for a couple months now and that number is already at five.
Threats written on bathroom walls, posted on social media and a weapon brought to school are just a handful of occurrences considered terroristic threats made by students so far this school year.
"The fear, the uncertainty and the anxiety that we all feel because things like that really do happen, don't leave room for any type of a joke," said Anchorage School District Superintendent, Dr. Deena Bishop.
The increase is not just happening in Anchorage, or even just Alaska. In fact, the dramatic increase is one seen nationwide since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that happened almost two years ago. That's when school leaders, including the Anchorage School District, decided to change their approach on dealing with these types of situations.
"We have determined that we don't have a tolerance for it, and so we have educated our kids but also taken action," said Bishop.
It all starts with having a conversation, by implementing things like Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into schools, which focuses on increasing children's social and self awareness.
Sean Prince is the principal at Bartlett High School, where he says they take the approach of treating school like a family, and a team.
"So as a family, you want to establish relationships where if something's going wrong in the family that you actually talk about it, and what we found is that through constant contact with each other and building relationships with each other, if there is something on the horizon that doesn't seem to fit in our norm of a family, we want to feel safe, and we tell each other," said Prince. "We talk to each other."
Jan Davis is the SEL and Positive behavior coordinator for ASD. She says other programs like 'Capturing Kids Hearts,' which started in Anchorage middle and high schools two years ago, are all about building positive relationships between students and teachers.
"It's hard for kids to 'tattle' on each other or report things, but when we want to get to across to students that it's reporting, not tattling, when something is going to be harmful," said Davis, "So they have to build that trust in us, and have that trust in authority."
Which begs the question, are the numbers increasing because more threats are happening, or because more students are feeling comfortable to come forward? There's no way to tell for sure, but Dr. Bishop says she believes an increase in education and awareness has helped children feel more comfortable.
"Many of these don't even occur in the school," said Dr. Bishop. "They occur outside the school at home, on social devices and different social networks, and we've had more parents as well as more students come forward and say, 'you know, we saw this on there,' and so we're finding out about them more. Even though they occur outside of school, if they cause anxiety, or fear or a disruption, technically, a disruption, to the educational environment, we will address it."
In addition to education, enhanced physical safety measures are on the way for ASD schools, including surveillance camera upgrades, more secure entryways, and regularly conducted safety drills. There's even an updated emergency operation plan the district puts out each year, with personalized plans put in place by each school. However, officials say it all starts with instilling a sense of trust and safety within students and the community.
"We could have the best physical security measures in the world, but it doesn't really do a whole lot if there's not a culture of safety in the schools, and so I think we're better suited to put a lot of our efforts towards that," said Director of Security and Emergency Services, Ashley Lally.
So whether it's a substantiated threat, or chalked up to a 'joke', the message remains clear, and it's a message not only intended for students, but parents as well.
"The parents of our kids who have been involved in this, many times are shocked that, 'My kid did this? My goodness...' and that's the assistance we need from home as well is to really have the same message, that it's just not funny," said Dr. Deena Bishop. "It's not okay to place anyone by a threat in fear. Even if you're joking, or even if you didn't mean it, even if it just came out. There's just no tolerance anymore for that."
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