Some Arkansas school districts are re-evaluating safety procedures after a shooting that left 17 people dead Wednesday at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
At least nine Arkansas schools have investigated threats of violence over the course of two days in what one expert called "copycat threats." The investigations have led to at least seven arrests, most of which were of minors. The Rogers School District canceled a pep rally Friday after receiving a vague threat. Other school districts that have reported threats are North Little Rock, Fayetteville, Berryville, Hackett, Timbo, Star City, Mammoth Spring and Gurdon.
Copycat threats also prompted school closings in Gilchrist County, Fla., and Nutley, N.J.; temporary lockdowns in Onslow County, N.C., and Avon, Conn.; and an investigation at a middle school outside Atlanta.
The incidents come on the heels of the shooting Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, north of Miami. Police have charged Nikolas Cruz, 19, with 17 counts of premeditated murder in the attack. Police say Cruz, a former student at the school, gunned down students and teachers in the hallways. Three faculty members and 14 students died.
There have been five shootings -- two were unintentional -- during school hours and on campus that have resulted in injury since the start of 2018, according to the Washington Post.
"We see the same kind of issues after suicides or a particularly graphic suicide in a TV show," said Joanna Thomas, a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville professor who advocates for in-home gun safety. "Not to say that these threats aren't real, because it often is real."
School officials across the state are re-examining safety policies and procedures, including reviewing access to school entrances and protocol when fire alarms activate. In Parkland, many students and teachers left the safety of their classrooms when the fire alarm went off because of existing fire alarm procedures.
Mark Gotcher, the Russellville School District superintendent, said he texted his safety officers Thursday about the school's evacuation procedure related to fire alarms.
"Unless fire and smoke are imminent, we are probably going to have people shelter in place," the superintendent said.
Gotcher said the wait would probably only be between 30 seconds and a minute, and that an announcement to evacuate would be made if there is a real danger. The school also will review entrance points to buildings to make sure there is only one door where visitors can enter, Gotcher said, and no doors should be propped open or unlocked.
Some school officials said an increased emphasis also will be placed on monitoring social media for threats.
Arkansas schools have 316 school resource officers who work across 156 school districts, according to Beth Green, a communications specialist with the University of Arkansas System's Criminal Justice Institute.
The Little Rock School District has a safety and security department with about 80 employees, 13 of whom are dispatch officers, Director Ron Self said. Self said he and his officers often investigate bomb or shooting threats made on social media posts. He said social media are one of the most common ways Little Rock schools receive threats.
"Typically it's never anything that winds up being credible," Self said. "It's somebody just goofing off on social media."
Gotcher said there will be more training on encouraging Russellville students to take social media posts seriously and to report any threats to the proper authorities.
Such posts are often among the first warning signs that a student might need an intervention, Thomas said. She said mental health professionals are generally the people to recognize and treat such problems.
"We don't have a social worker in every school right now, and this is a problem," Thomas said. "We're seeing this as a widespread issue."
Thomas said that after a mass school shooting, crisis intervention with social workers and therapists also should be made available for students.
"These are areas where we need to do better, and we need to offer more funding for these kind of services," she said.
Jonesboro Superintendent Kim Wilbanks expressed concern that Medicaid cuts might force schools to cut on-campus mental health services. She and other superintendents in Craighead County met Thursday and discussed safety concerns at their schools.
"It is basically impossible as an educator to identify potential perpetrators," Wilbanks said, reiterating the need for on-campus mental health services. "It's easy for us to determine who's having difficulty in class, who has disruptive behavior on a school bus. There's no real checklist to identify a student who might harm another student."
Arkansas schools are safe in general, said Eric Huber, supervisor of safety and security for the Fort Smith School District and a past president of the Arkansas Safe Schools Association, a statewide, nonprofit organization dedicated to school safety.
But school officials, parents and police remain concerned, said Berryville Police Chief Robert Barton, whose department arrested an eighth-grader Thursday after he threatened online to shoot classmates.
"Everybody's fears are up," Barton said. "So it really just takes a little match to set everybody's fears off."
Thomas said many threatening social media posts come from students posing with guns that they have easy access to at home.
"In Arkansas, there is no minimum age to possess a rifle or shotgun for children," Thomas said.
Local members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group that advocates for legislative gun reform, have spoken with lawmakers. Eve Jorgensen, the state chapter lead, said about 20 of the group's members went to the state Capitol and talked to legislators about the need for stronger gun storage laws and a repeal of the campus concealed-carry law passed last year.
"Lawmakers love to offer thoughts and prayers, but we also need action," Jorgensen said.
Moms Demand Action held a vigil Thursday with close to 20 people in Jonesboro; a shooting in 1998 left four children and one teacher dead at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro.
"I became a mom in '97, shortly after Westside, before Columbine, and I was constantly reeling from the horror of those images and feeling really powerless to do anything," said Lisa Melton, the local chapter leader. "Enough is enough, and that's the way I feel. Not one more."
Information for this article was contributed by Scarlet Sims of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 02/17/2018
Print Headline: State's schools size up security; 9 report threats