GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Following the deadly shooting at Oxford High School in Oakland County, schools throughout the state have reported an uptick in threats against their students.
On Friday, more than 100 schools were closed statewide, including several in West Michigan, out of an abundance of caution because of threats.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker says this is not the first time authorities have seen an influx of school threats.
“We do see this on a regular basis,” he said. “Every time there’s a school shooting, we do see the threats go up locally, no matter where it happens.”
Since last December, Becker says his office received referrals to charge 39 people who made threats against schools in Kent County. Ultimately, 21 of those were charged, with counts ranging from a one-year misdemeanor for intentional threats to commit an act of violence against a school, school employee or students to a 20-year felony for a false report or threat of terrorism. Charges are at the prosecutor’s discretion and things like age and prior record can play a role.
Becker says the threats are often surprisingly easy to track down via phone, IP address or witnesses.
He said each threat is investigated thoroughly and taken even more seriously following a mass shooting event.
“We take every one of these very seriously because of what can happen,” Becker said. “There’s no question that every law enforcement officer (is) on heightened alert waiting for something because you don’t want that to happen locally in your school district or your community.”
While some threats have merit, law enforcement says many are empty and the reasons people make the threats vary.
“I think it could be for a number of reasons. It’s hard to say,” licensed professional counselor Enid Gaddis said. “Clearly it could be more opportunistic, meaning, ‘Hey, I know that the concern and levels of caution are really high.’ Maybe it’s just a young person using that as an opportunity to get a couple days off school. It could be something as simple as that, just to capitalize on the abundance of caution that is out here, all the way up to if a person might identify in some way with the events that have gone on and feels emboldened by that.”
Gaddis serves as the director of equity and inclusion at Grand Rapids-based mental health services provider Arbor Circle. She says people who make empty threats could be desensitized to the seriousness of mass shootings.
“There may be some folks who don’t take it seriously because it happens so much,” Gaddis said.
Gaddis advised parents to begin talking to their students about how they feel following the mass shooting at Oxford or having their school threatened in the wake of the shooting. She also said parents should be in tune with their own emotions and fears.
“The main thing to do is to have the conversation. Don’t wait for your kids to come to you. Ask them how they’re feeling, ask them what they know,” Gaddis said.
The prosecutor says no matter what the reason is for the threat, it’s not a good idea.
“You go to an airport, you don’t make a joke about bombs. We’re in the same situation with things about schools. You don’t make threats about schools or anything along those lines. We take it very seriously because we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Becker said.
The state of Michigan has a resource for students to report dangerous situations in school or elsewhere. Students with a tip can contact OK2Say securely and confidentially online, through an app, or by texting OK2SAY or calling 8.555.OK2SAY.