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Why do students copycat? Experts break down the wave of threats that swept Anchorage schools

  • Author: Madeline McGee
  • Updated: December 13, 2018
  • Published December 13, 2018

Anchorage students returned to school this week after a month of tumultuous disruptions.

Even before a massive earthquake damaged schools throughout the district on Nov. 30, a wave of threats against at least five middle and high schools stoked anxiety among parents and students. Four students — two boys and two girls — have been arrested over the threats. Only one threatened school, Hanshew Middle, has not yet seen an arrest.

School administrators haven’t found any of the threats — which have come in various forms, from bathroom wall graffiti to social media posts — to be credible. But with each new message, district officials emphasized that they take every threat seriously.

School threats like these are unusual in Alaska, which has some of the lowest rates of such violence in the nation. Last year, Alaska ranked 44th in the country for number of school threats and incidents of schoolhouse violence such as shootings, assaults or suicides, according to a report from the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit that tracks school threats.

However, school safety researchers say the rapid spread of threats isn’t altogether unusual. Threats against schools tend to cluster, with the first one often spurring several more. In the first 30 days after February’s deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, more than 1,100 copycat threats flooded schools across the country, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network.

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Stephen Brock, a professor of school psychology at California State University, Sacramento, said there’s a word for this phenomenon: contagion.

The word is most often associated with suicide, and especially with an incident that happened in Vienna, Austria, in the 19th century, Brock said. After news organizations there began reporting on a rash of people throwing themselves in front of trains, even more suicides followed, he said. Once the country implemented national restrictions on covering suicides, the number of deaths dropped. Even today, American news media usually won’t report on a suicide unless it involves a public figure.

The same goes for school threats, Brock said. Students, whose young brains are not fully developed and who might have mistaken beliefs about the consequences of their own behaviors, might be inclined to copy a threat when they see they can get attention from it, he said.

“When a kid is misbehaving, sometimes that’s the only way they can get attention,” Brock said.

Many of Brock’s suggestions for mitigating contagion are directed at news media: Namely, take away a student’s incentive to make a threat by minimizing the attention they can get from it. Reporters can do that by not reporting the student’s name or releasing their photograph, he said.

Amy Klinger, a school safety researcher and founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network, said the language we use to talk about threats can also exacerbate the problem — using words like “hoax” or “prank” to describe non-credible threats trivializes a serious issue, she said. That could make students look at threats as a way of amusing themselves.

For Klinger, threats are often a matter of novelty. With a violent threat comes anxiety, fear and disruption, “all of which are way more interesting than third-period algebra,” Klinger said. “And so it happens again, because that was more fun than a traditional, typical school day.”

For a young person, she said, the ability to throw a school into chaos with a single social media post or a scrawl on a bathroom wall could also be a way of seizing a sense of power. The school administration is then caught in the unfortunate position of having to strike the correct balance between ensuring the safety of students and avoiding the sort of “over response” that might sow more threats, Klinger said.

ASD spokeswoman Catherine Esary said the Anchorage school district’s goal is to minimize the inevitable disruption that follows each threat. While district policy requires administrators to make staff and parents aware of a threat as soon as possible, it handles communication with students in classrooms more sensitively, advising administrators to notify students during the school day only “if appropriate and practical.”

“Overall, our task and our goal is to provide the greatest sense of safety and sense of normalcy for students,” Esary said.

The two school safety researchers say the best way to prevent threats from happening in the first place is by fostering what Brock calls “a sense of school connectedness.” The thinking here is that a student is less likely to make a threat against a school they feel supports them, the researchers said.

What that comes down to is, as Brock put it, “recognizing, appreciating and truly believing that the adults at my school care about me as a person.”