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'It really is a cry for help': Threats to schools on the rise nationwide

Threats of violence made against schools are not a new thing at all, but more and more districts are dealing with it at an unprecedented rate.

MINNEAPOLIS — At least 10 schools in Minnesota have reported threats of violence in the past few days — the latest being part of Stillwater Public Schools and Edina Public Schools.

Both districts sent communication home to parents Tuesday, saying there was a threat of violence that had been flagged, and they investigated but found no actual threat. Students were then allowed to resume their day.

But there are many scenarios that have not ended that way. Lac Qui Parle Valley schools had an e-learning day Tuesday for a possible threat, and Pequot Lakes School District canceled classes Monday.

So, what goes into making these decisions?

Do you take every threat seriously? Or do you err on the side of keeping kids in school — especially during a year that still remains severely disrupted by COVID?

Off the top, Roseville Area Schools Assistant Superintendent Melissa Sonnek says every threat is treated with utmost urgency.

"School threats aren't necessarily a new thing, but across the country, schools are experiencing a record number of threats and we take every threat seriously, and we also have to recognize them for what they really are — and it really is a cry for help," Sonnek said.

Said like a true parent and educator.

"Being an assistant superintendent is a lot like being a mom," Sonnek said. "But instead of being a mom to my five kids, I have 7,400. When I think about the last 18 months with COVID and injustice and everything taking place in our community and our world, it seems like the whole world is hurting right now."

Roseville has not had any incidents of threats of violence made against any of its schools, but it's prepared, having shifted its focus.

"How do we prevent it from happening in the first place? That is why we have our district safety and security team, we have our crisis response intervention and planning team, but also putting systems in place like anonymous reporting systems," she said. "In the Roseville Area Schools we have 'see something, say something.'"

If a threat were to be made, Sonnek says she knows the decision is kind of a lose-lose: If they don't do anything, then they're in trouble, and if they do something, parents might be annoyed.

"All of us are interested in keeping kids in schools as much as possible," Sonnek said. "We want students to come into school and have routine and normalcy, so we're gonna do everything in our power to keep kids learning, and we also have to take threats seriously, too. So we have to do our due diligence and investigate and ensure that while we're taking threats seriously, responding to individual students, we're being proactive and rather than just practicing when things happen like threats."

To further this, they have partnered with the Violence Project — a nonprofit research center dedicated to researching and reducing violence and mass shootings.

From there, Sonnek says the district has learned, that every moment created by a threat can still be schooled.

"While I think traditional schools or the traditional approach would be to have consequences, we also want to teach," she said. "How do we teach — use this as a teachable moment — support them, learn through this and to prevent it from happening in the future."

The Violence Project is holding a free webinar for school administrators about this very topic Friday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

You can register for the event here.

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