Albemarle County schools saw an increase in online threats directed toward the schools during the first part of the fall semester, part of a broader unease in the buildings as students adjusted to being back in school full-time.
“This is the first time that I can remember having so many of these types of scenarios happening so quickly,” said Jesse Turner, the division’s director of student services, of the threats. “I wouldn’t say that there have necessarily been more this year than the other years. I think if we continue with the way that we’re going, it will be more.”
Officials have responded to at least seven threats this school year, according to a review of media reports. In all cases, the threats were determined not to be credible, meaning the student didn’t intend or have the ability to act on it. However, credibility doesn’t negate the seriousness of the threat, police officers said at a recent virtual forum. Two children from the area are facing charges in connection with threats made against Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools.
Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, said that there does seem to be a surge in school threats nationwide, which is part of a larger mental health problem among students related to the pandemic.
“School mental health staff are responding to many students in need of services and teachers are dealing with many disciplinary problems,” Cornell said. “Our schools are under tremendous strain.”
Cornell, director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at UVa, said he started hearing about the increase in school threats earlier in the fall, but the problem worsened after the fatal shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan. Most of the threats have been hoaxes, intended to be disruptive, he said.
“It is important to remember that schools are very safe places and less likely to experience a shooting than almost any other place in our communities,” Cornell said.
Cornell said schools should have a trained threat assessment team to investigate reports, support students and prevent violence. He also encouraged schools to educate students about the consequences of making a threat online. Albemarle County schools did that recently via an online forum held in partnership with the police department and Commonwealth’s Attorney. Each school in the county also has a threat assessment team.
“Many of these threats are thoughtless acts by youth who do not realize the impact of what they are doing,” he said.
Detective Mike Wells with the Albemarle County Police Department said at the virtual forum that students’ mental health, like the broader community, have been affected by the pandemic, which has led to the increase in issues this year.
“I’m not giving them an excuse or reason to do this,” Wells said. “… It’s important to note that this did throw them off their game a little bit.”
Wells said that hopefully the pandemic disruptions will end and student behavior will go back to normal.
“That’s what we want,” he said. “We don’t want to drop hammers on juveniles. As police, we’re not out to hammer children for making stupid mistakes.”
Wells and other officials at the forum encouraged students to tell an adult if they see a threat online. Those who report the threat could soon see a monetary award from the school division, under an incentive plan created in April 2019.
Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said no reward has been issued since that 2019 announcement but that could soon change.
Earlier next year, Turner will review the reports made regarding three different threats involving Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools as well as Burley Middle School in order to determine whether they qualify.
“We’re excited about that,” Turner said. “It’s just a token of our appreciation because oftentimes, we just would not know if children didn’t feel comfortable enough and cared enough and believed that we care to tell us.”
The exact amount of the reward is still being determined. In 2019, schools Superintendent Matt Haas said those who send the division information about threats could receive up to $300.
Giaramita said in one of the recent cases, a student took a screenshot of a threat made on Snapchat, an application in which posts disappear. That proved helpful, he said.
‘Difficult for some children’
Turner said the school closures because of the pandemic and other disruptions have meant that children went months living without the structure of a school day and took on extra responsibilities.
“We’ve had some children during COVID — preteens all the way through high school — who were serving as parents,” he said. “They’ve been taking care of the younger siblings, taking on a really big adult role, which allowed them to in some ways not really have to answer to anyone or live within some structure. Now, we’re asking students to come back, maybe some who lived like an adult the last 18 months, to now be a child again. It’s difficult for some children.”
Nationally, schools are seeing an increase in student misbehavior this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
During the extended closure, Turner said students have missed out opportunities to grow social-emotionally and to prepare themselves for transitions from middle to high school or elementary to middle school.
“Some children went home when they were in seventh grade and didn’t come back to school face-to-face until they were in ninth grade,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between high school and middle school. “
This year, Turner said schools have seen more children who are struggling to navigate daily routines at school.
“Some students, not all, but some students are having great difficulty attending school, or when they are actually physically in school and going to class,” he said. “That’s been something that I’ve seen a rise in.”
Giaramita said that the division has had 49 cases of student discipline this year, which includes suspensions — both in school or out of school — as well as disciplinary hearings. At this point in the 2019-20 school year, there had been 79 cases of student discipline.
“We’re not talking about a significant problem in the student body,” he said. “We are talking about one or two out of more than 13,000. Not that not that those one or two don’t matter. They obviously do, but any sense that somehow there’s a significant issue going on with students division-wide doesn’t track with the numbers.”
One new resource for students at the middle and high schools in the county is the student safety coach. In summer 2020, the Albemarle School Board voted to remove armed police officers from the schools and create a new model for school security and safety. The safety coaches, which are part of that model, were hired over the summer.
“Safety coaches are really another layer of support for students, faculty, and administration,” Turner said. “They’re there to help regulate students, to build relationships, to help them solve issues, as well as keep them safe physically. Because our safety coaches move around the building, children see them all the time. They become accustomed to seeing them, which helps them to become comfortable in their presence.”
Their support has been well-received, Turner said. At the forum, Turner said there have not been conversations about bringing back the armed officers.
The division also hired social-emotional coaches for each school in order to help students recover from the pandemic.
Friday was the last day of class for students before a two-week winter break. When students return, Turner said the central office staff will support principals and school staff in re-establishing routines.
“We’re looking to continue to build on what we started in August by bringing children back, trying to get them more settled in,” he said, adding that relationships between adults in the school buildings and the students will be essential to help students re-adjust after winter break.
Turner said children should understand where they can get help in a school if they need it and be encouraged to seek that help.
“Teachers and staff just need to be very vigilant,” he said. “… We’re getting close to state standardized testing, and we need for children to be focused, and we need for teachers to be understanding and willing to have relationships with their students so they can have the best opportunity possible to help them be successful.”
Turner acknowledged that many of the teachers, school staff and administrators are exhausted.
“Our students are tired of having to live with COVID and I think parents are the same way,” he said. “It has in a lot of ways just drained the batteries of all of our stakeholders. And there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. That is difficult for some people to live with and manage.”