Rattled by false threat rumors, students share anxieties and ideas on school safety

Officials seek student views after Parkland shooting

Junior Macy Force, right, says the school needs designated safe areas for students, while classmate Jenna Bailey listens

Junior Sofia Baldwin and three dozen classmates had gathered to discuss school safety with administrators, but the issue had suddenly become much too real.

Rumors of a threat against the high school were circulating among students that morning of March 6, prompting many to leave or not arrive — about 300 absences altogether including illnesses, officials said.

Despite an 8:20 a.m. alert sent to families and an email to teachers that there was in fact no credible threat, Sofia and other students were shaken. She said it “brought my anxiety way up high” when she heard the rumor second hour.

“It’s a question of, is this really going to happen?” Sofia said. “Am I going to be alone? Am I going to stand up to the fight or am I not? Am I going to lose friends today?”

Such questions have weighed on many students’ minds since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – a tragedy schools nationwide will mark tomorrow with “walkout” ceremonies honoring the 17 who died there. Many area schools will see voluntary student activities at 10 a.m., such as walking outside to observe 17 minutes of silence or holding indoor discussions on how to make their schools safer.

‘It’s something we think about constantly: the safety of each and every one of you.’ – Superintendent Scott Korpak

But for Sofia and other Northview High students, the rumors of a threat added extra ripples of anxiety to the ongoing fear of school violence – on the same day that about 140 government students held pre-scheduled discussion groups on that very problem.

Junior Sofia Baldwin talks in her small group about her fears of a school shooting such as the one in Parkland, Florida

Reassuring Nervous Students

Investigations by the Kent County Sheriff’s Department found there was no validity to the rumors, and surmised they may have sprung from a Feb. 22 fight between two students in which one reportedly threatened to shoot the other. But the false alarm still left some students rattled as they gathered in four sessions to address safety concerns, which arose from discussions in teacher Travis Nichol’s government classes.

They gathered in small groups with Superintendent Scott Korpak and other administrators to talk about how safe they felt, what makes them feel unsafe and how to make their school safer. The discussion was coordinated by Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent Ron Koehler, who provided historical context: the Bath school bombing of 1927, which killed 44 children and adults; and the nuclear bomb drills of the baby boomer generation.

Korpak reassured students the threat rumors had been thoroughly investigated in response to an after-midnight social-media post. He acknowledged many parents were “understandably very concerned and angry” about how the situation was communicated. But whenever such threats are made, he emphasized, “If we hear something, we believe it” – until it’s proven to be false.

“It’s something we think about constantly: the safety of each and every one of you,” Korpak said, emphasizing the district needs students’ help in improving the process. “We’re here because of all of you.”

Ron Koehler, Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent who served as discussion moderator, says threats to student safety go back nearly a century

Anxieties Abound

At a table moderated by school counselor James Vanden Heuvel, students immediately started peppering him with questions and fears: Where are we supposed to go if a shooting starts while we’re in the hallway? Why don’t we push furniture against the classroom door in our code-red drills? Why aren’t the bathrooms more protected?

The renovated school’s abundance of glass walls in classrooms and at the front of the school came up more than once.

“If you can remodel a school and make it glass and, like, beautiful, why can’t you make safe areas where we can go to?” asked junior Macy Force. (Indoor glass is shatterproof, and shatterproof film has been put on some exterior windows, officials said.)

Others questioned how well the drills prepare them for a real-life shooter, saying panicked student behavior is unpredictable. What if you saw someone in the hallway freaking out? one girl asked. Do you run to a place where you’d be safe or run to help them?

“You have no way of knowing what to do when you’re in a situation of, how do I disarm somebody? How do I fight back?” said senior Liam Joyce. “A lot of people don’t even know what a gun sounds like.”

‘It’s a question of, is this really going to happen? Am I going to be alone? Am I going to stand up to the fight or am I not? Am I going to lose friends today?’ – Junior Sofia Baldwin

The drills, held four times a year at Northview, need to be better organized and made more lifelike, several students said.

“In drills we act way differently than we do in a real situation,” said Sofia. “That’s something we need to work on. I feel like a lot of time when we do drills, a lot of people don’t take it seriously.

Noting she’d faced dangerous situations in her native Mexico, she told her group, “I’m trying to not cry, because this is real to me.”

Senior Gillian Gessner talks about problems such as bullying while counselor James Vanden Heuvel listens

Ideas for Safety

When Vanden Heuvel asked how safe they feel in school on a scale of one to 10, their answers ranged from “three or four” to eight; other small groups gave ratings of eight to nine. Vanden Heuvel, who has worked on firefighter crews, said experiencing traumatic events shapes people’s perceptions of danger, which must be tempered with reason.

“Would it help you to know there are plainclothes people thinking about your safety every single day?” he asked his group. All nodded.

The entire group of 35 reconvened to share their suggestions on how to improve school safety. Prime among them was better screening of and support for student mental health. Others included:

  • more nurturing classroom culture to help those feeling isolated;
  • more realistic lockdown drills and more security guards;
  • taping off classroom areas where a shooter can’t see from the outside;
  • better differentiating credible and not credible threats;
  • enabling teachers to see school cameras to help them locate the shooter.

Only three students raised hands to indicate they favor arming teachers. Said Macy Force, “It’s just not fair to put the responsibility of authority, like police officers, on a teacher who’s like, ‘I want to teach these kids.’”

Afterward, Korpak, Principal Mark Thomas and other officials said the session showed students generally feel safer in school than out of it, but that they want more thorough training in how to handle a real-life shooter. That could involve working with smaller groups of students, holding drills for each hour of the day, and enacting responses of “avoid, deny, defend,” they said.

“Maybe we need to look at more intense training for kids,” which staff members already receive, said School Resource Officer Sgt. Andy Kozal.

Students said they would welcome that.

“I definitely feel more secure knowing that our teachers and staff are taking more steps toward making sure that we’re all safe here,” Sofia said afterward.

“This is important to me,” she added. “I have a little sister here. She means a lot to me.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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