Skip to main Content

Threat or hoax? Schools find it's harder to weigh the risks

Mark Conrad, superintendent of schools in Nashua, New Hampshire, got the chilling news last Sunday morning. An email sent to a school board member threatened a lethal attack on multiple schools, naming the sites, how students would be harmed and the date, Dec. 21 — the next day.

"It was a first for us, in terms of the breadth of the threat and the specificity," Conrad said. Last Sunday evening, after consulting with the police, Conrad did something that, as far as officials in Nashua knew, had never been done there before: He ordered that all schools stay closed that Monday because of the fear of violence.

The previous week, the Los Angeles school system also shut down for a day, in the face of a threat of terrorist attacks against multiple schools. Last month, the University of Chicago canceled classes and activities for a day, after discovering a social media post that talked of killing "16 white male students and or staff" and "any number of white policemen"; Western Washington University suspended classes after a post suggested lynching a student leader; and Washington College in Maryland closed for several days after a distraught student disappeared with a gun.

But for every such reaction, there have been decisions not to lock down campuses in the face of a threat. To name just a few, schools officials in New York City, Houston and Miami received emails similar to those received in Los Angeles and Nashua, and two social media users last month wrote that they wanted to kill African-Americans at the University of Missouri, including one who stated a plan to "shoot every black person I see."

None of the threats, it seems, were serious. Threats of mass violence on campuses have proliferated through social media, educators say, but most are hoaxes — in fact, most are never made public.

Yet school officials and campus safety consultants say they have to take threats more seriously than they did a decade or two ago, given the history of campus massacres like the one in October at an Oregon community college and the public's heightened fear of terrorist attacks like the one this month in San Bernardino, California. And they said they could not recall anything like the recent spate of class cancellations and school closings.

Even when schools do not shut down, administrators say, they are more likely to order increased security patrols, or ask people to be on the lookout for a person or vehicle. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, many schools adopted electronic alert systems, sending text messages to students, parents and staff members about potential dangers.

"There is a big difference in how we interpret possible threats today, because of the violence we've seen," said Will Marling, interim senior director for operations and programs at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, a campus safety group created by relatives of victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech. If a suitcase was left unattended at an airport 20 years ago, he said, "the reaction might have been 'Someone put it in lost and found,' but now it's 'Call the bomb squad.'"

On campus, deciding how to respond usually falls to administrators, who lean heavily on the advice of law enforcement officials, often have little verified information to go on and only a few hours to make the call, and have a sense that they might be second-guessed no matter what. An administrator fears not reacting strongly enough when lives are at stake, but college and school officials say there are costs to overreacting — in policing expenses, lost classroom time, frayed nerves and the danger of encouraging copycat threats.

"It's a real dilemma, and it puts university administration and law enforcement, both, in a tough position, to evaluate those threats," said R. Douglas Schwandt, chief of the University of Missouri police. "Most recently, I think there's definitely a tendency to err on the side of caution."

In Missouri's case, officials learned of the social media threats from students in the evening, and within hours, police had determined that neither one had come from the immediate area. One person was arrested during the night, and another, farther away, was arrested late the next morning.

Officials decided not to advise people to change their routines, but some professors canceled classes and many students stayed in their dorms and apartments. Schwandt said he could not guess how the university would have reacted if the threats had originated nearby, or if neither person had been arrested by sunrise.

Both the substance of the threats and their context influence administrators' decisions. The threat at the University of Chicago was similar to those in Missouri, but it was more specific. The threat was also posted from somewhere in the city amid angry demonstrations there over the killing of a black youth by police, and the university was alerted to it by the FBI.

In Los Angeles, when aides awakened the schools chancellor, Ramon C. Cortines, with news of an anonymous email threat, he had barely an hour to decide whether to cancel the school day and did not know that New York had received virtually the same message. As Cortines noted, the region was already on edge after the shootings in San Bernardino days earlier, which were said to have been inspired by jihadi terrorist groups, as the author of the email claimed to be.

In New York, officials did not learn of the threat until the school day had started. They quickly learned of the parallels with the Los Angeles threat, and they noted details in the email that signaled that it was less than credible. By the time similar threats reached other cities' schools, they were old news.

The most unusual case may have been that of Washington College, where a student who brandished a gun was expelled from his fraternity and his dorm, and faced both possible expulsion and criminal charges. He took a gun from his parents' home, and was seen on surveillance video buying ammunition in a store, then disappeared. Though he had made no threats, police warned his college and the high school he attended, in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, that he might pose a danger. The student was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Sheila Bair, the college president, said that when she shut down the college, she was thinking of shootings on campus by students in the past, including the one just weeks earlier, at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. And like other school officials around the country, she said parents and students want strong reactions; the criticism comes from outsiders.

"It feeds on itself, because the more you have incidents that do result in harm, the more sensitive people get, and the more strongly they react," she said. "You've got to put the safety of the students first. If someone's harmed, that's irreversible."

Conrad, in Nashua, said, "I've received one concern from a parent saying that we should have been open, but the overwhelming majority has been people saying they were glad we were closed for the day."