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Northeast Ohio schools have received a wave of shooting threats. Here's how they're handled

A screenshot of the warning message that appeared on the Berea City Schools website on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.
Important message notice on the Berea City Schools website

The number of school shooting threats has risen dramatically this year, according to a database complied by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. It’s a trend that seems to be playing out in school districts across Northeast Ohio, especially in the wake of the Oxford, Michigan, shooting late last month.  

Last Friday Berea-Midpark Middle School was closed after a threat came in overnight. The student was apprehended and is being charged.

Lorain City Schools received a threat. Elyria High School was also recently placed on lockdown from a threat. 

Threats were also recently made at Mogadore High School, Westwood Middle School in Elyria, and the Stow-Munroe Falls High SchoolCleveland Heights High School was on lockdown. Hudson City Schools, Norwalk Middle School and High School, and Orange High School all dealt with threats in the last few weeks, and those are just the ones we know about.

Berea City Schools Superintendent Tracy Wheeler said her district actually dealt with three separate threats last week. 

“If it’s something that’s credible we’re not going to put kids in school,” Wheeler said. “If it’s not credible then we believe the kids are safe.” 

Wheeler’s first line of defense is her students. 

“They’re the eyes and the ears in our building, if they see something, if they hear something, they need to say something,” she said. 

At least one student was paying attention at a recent school presentation touting the benefits of the “see something, say something police.” Late last Thursday a student texted their principal about a Snapchat they saw threatening the Berea-Midpark Middle School. Wheeler immediately called the police.

Middleburg Heights Police Chief Ed Tomba said his department immediately started investigating the threat but were unable to identify the student overnight. The district decided to err on the side of caution and canceled classes at the middle school. High school and elementary students and their parents were told that they can come to school or stay home for the day, depending on their comfort level. The next day, the investigation continued.

“We identified the student, we obtained a search warrant, we obtained as much information as we could, we went to his house, he’s a juvenile, we interviewed him, we interviewed his parents and then we ended up arresting him,” Tomba told Ideastream Public Media. 

Assessing the threat

Ohio is a local control state, so how schools go about investigating threats is up to each school, but what happened in Berea seems to be pretty typical.

Someone, often a student or maybe a staff member, notifies a school official about a threat. Sometimes school officials will start investigating on their own, but if the threat seems at all credible they call the police, who then interview students, staff and parents and get in touch with social media companies until they figure out who made the threat. Usually the kid gets in trouble with the district, maybe a suspension or expulsion, and often criminal charges are filed. 

Tomba says most kids don’t understand that last bit — that just making a threat, even if you never intended to go through with it or you thought it was just a joke, can land you in jail and leave you with a criminal record for the rest of your life. 

“Social media, it’s a huge challenge for these kids,” he said. “They have to realize that what they’re putting out there is a crime.” 

Ohio schools don’t have to report threats, which means there is no concrete data, but officials say threats and violence in schools were on the rise even before the latest school shootings. 

According to Emily Torok, administrator of the Ohio School Safety Center at the Ohio Department of Public Safety, federal law enforcement agencies were already preparing for this school year over the summer. 

Her own agency prepared a PSA for schools warning them of what was headed their way, “just knowing that kids were back in the classroom and forecasting that potentially there could be more threats of violence knowing that in the spring we had quite a few fights and different things like that in the schools,” she said. 

All Ohio schools must have a safety plan, and by March of 2023 all schools will have to have a threat assessment team in place, though some already do. The Ohio School Safety Center also set up an anonymous tip line. And then there’s her favorite slogan, which she has plastered all over her work space and is a favorite of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine as well: 

“See something, say something, do something about it.” 

School safety consultant Ken Trump attributes the increase in violent school incidents to the stress of the pandemic and the extended time kids spent away from school. He believes remote learning has been harmful to kids socially, emotionally and academically, leading to the rise in weapons confiscations and threats at schools. 

Trump said one of the best things schools could do right now is to provide students with social and emotional supports. Still, he said, it’s important to remember that while schools receive many threats, most are empty…just kids saying dumb things online. 

“Experience and threat assessment tells us when someone makes a threat (it) doesn’t necessarily mean they pose a threat,” he said. 

For Superintendent Wheeler, dealing with those threats are the most stressful moments of her job.

“We don’t take it lightly,” she said. “Any time we’re dealing with this, we’re going to investigate it till the end to try to find out who has done it, and then when we talk discipline and things like that, we take it seriously.” 

Officials say school safety is a community effort, and their beloved catchphrase, see something - say something, applies to all of us.