Michigan school threats soar after Florida massacre
In the month since a former student shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Michigan schools have been forced to deal with a spike of violent threats — and authorities are treating the cases as deadly serious.
Just ask Ronald Bowen, who found himself in court Thursday at a hearing for his 17-year-old son, Randall, who allegedly threatened authorities at Detroit’s Ben Carson High School on March 1 after being expelled for hitting a teacher with an egg.
The teen’s father told Judge Deborah Lewis Langston of 36th District Court his son isn’t a bad kid, just one who showed “bad judgment.”
Langston released Randall Bowen on a $25,000 personal bond, but the teen’s legal troubles are far from over. He is charged with making a false report or threat of terrorism, a felony that carries a 20-year prison sentence.
“That was just a boneheaded thing to do,” Langston told the teen’s father and his attorney, Kristine Longstreet.
After the hearing, as friends and classmates of his son formed a prayer circle outside the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, Ronald Bowen reminded them of what’s been happening at schools across the nation: “Kids are dying. It’s not a joke.”
Local law enforcement and school officials say they are treating all threats as credible — and holding violators accountable. In the post-Parkland era, they say, there’s no other choice.
“It’s almost a daily occurrence right now,” said Paul Walton, an assistant Oakland County prosecutor. “You’ve got to take it seriously. You’ve got to trust it. You’ve got to make sure there’s not a danger to anyone involved in this.”
Walton said he’s not sure what’s motivating the threats, but they have definitely increased since Parkland. In the past month, he said his office has filed charges in 19 school-threat cases.
“Is this an attention issue? Why are they feeling compelled to do this now?” he asked.
In the first two weeks after the Florida massacre Feb. 14, Michigan had 41 threats against schools, the fifth-highest total in the nation, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network, a national nonprofit school safety organization that tracks and studies threats of violence in American schools.
In the past week alone, Metro Detroit police have arrested nearly a dozen students for making threats. A school threat March 13 in Van Buren Township forced the closure of Belleville High School, and Whitmore Lake schools were closed Wednesday following a threat the day before. Four teens were arrested in connection with the Whitmore Lake threat.
On Tuesday, school officials in Melvindale said they would close the Academy for Business and Technology High School on Wednesday after officials said they received a threat.
Earlier this month, students from Detroit and Canton, Shelby and Clinton townships were among those arrested and charged with making terrorist threats against their school. In most of the cases, police went to their homes following their arrests to look for weapons.
At a hearing for Canton High School student Brendan Sibel, the student’s attorney told the judge his client made the March 5 threats against Canton and Salem high schools so he could get out of class.
Sibel, 17, is charged with two counts of making a false report or threat of terrorism, a 20-year felony, and two counts of making a bomb threat, a four-year felony, according to court records.
In most cases, Michigan law allows arrests and prosecution of those who threaten violence, whether there was an intent to harm or not.
Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith said his office has brought 32 charges in threat cases since the Parkland shooting. During the entire previous school year, they had 17 cases.
He said more students are turning in their classmates who make threats because “nobody wants their school to become the next Columbine ... no one wants their school to become the site of a mass shooting.”
Smith said “no one can put a finger” on why there is such a huge uptick in the number of threats but said his office has “zero tolerance” for those who make them.
“These things can cause such longtime ramifications for them not through the legal system but the educational system as well,” Smith said. “They’re all charged with felonies. Every time a kid does this, they’re affecting their future.”
Walton has been visiting Oakland County schools, warning students and parents about the consequences that can result from a threat.
“You could end up on a watch or No Fly list,” he said.
Since the shooting in Parkland, police and school officials have spoken more often and are revisiting their safety procedures and practices, officials say.
Berkley School Superintendent Dennis McDavid said early this month school administrators have met with public safety chiefs from three communities where school buildings are located — Berkley, Oak Park and Huntington Woods — to revisit safety issues.
“We talked through things we are doing well and things we could be doing better. We also talked about how we could add to our safety procedures and practices,” McDavid said.
The district is making short-term changes to bolster school security. They include having all three public safety departments immediately begin regular, random visits to schools.
“This will both create a greater police presence and make sure our officers are familiar with our schools,” McDavid said. “In the past, seeing a police car in front of one of our schools used to make people believe there was an issue. Now it will more likely mean the officers are stopping in to say hello and ensuring the safety of our students.”
The public safety departments were recently given access to Berkley’s school security camera systems — only to be used in an emergency or at the district’s direction.
In late February, school officials in Macomb County provided county emergency responders direct access to video cameras inside and outside of classroom buildings in an effort to add an extra layer of safety.
Utica Community Schools and Romeo Community Schools were the first of 21 districts to provide Macomb County’s Communications and Technology Center, known as COMTEC, access to on-site school cameras.
In the event of an emergency in either district, employees at COMTEC, which includes the sheriff’s office dispatch, can immediately access live feeds of cameras in public areas of schools such as hallways, exterior doors, large rooms such as libraries and outside views along nearby roads and parking lots.
On Thursday, Sterling Heights police are expected to announced new security measures being taken by Utica Community Schools and Warren Consolidated Schools that include additional officers being placed in the high schools, emergency access to school security cameras and a new elementary school education program to be led by the department.
Ken Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, said that while school districts can try a “diversity” of measures for drills or emergencies, “lockdowns” are more effective than suddenly evacuating students.
“A lockdown works,” he said. “Self-evacuation is well intended but not well thought-out. (Students and school staff) may be running into danger. They may be running into first responders who are trying to neutralize the shooter.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said even before Parkland, other school shootings had motivated district officials to take threats more seriously.
“I personally don’t think that we were being made aware by the schools when these threats were occurring,” she said. “With (shootings) in the last five years or so, schools taking are taking this a whole lot more seriously and letting us know each and every time this occurs.”
Worthy said her office considers numerous factors in deciding whether to file charges for school threats, and if so, how serious they should be. Among them: whether the suspect had access to weapons, the suspect’s age, previous assaultive behavior, threatening language or ties to violent groups and whether the suspect has a history of mental illness.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to charge everybody as an adult,” Worthy said. “Nor am I going to say each and every one of these cases is going to be charged. We can’t say that. It’s irresponsible to say that until there’s been a full investigation.”
Henry Ford Hospital clinical therapist N. Vanessa Jackson, whose specialty is counseling adolescents, said while some of the threats could be “copy cats,” there also could an indication that teens are crying out for help when they demonstrate “aggressive, unpredictable and concerning behavior.”
She said sometimes clues might be lurking online.
“These days, you have to look at their social media,” Jackson said. “These days, young people are shaping their identity based on social media.”
Jackson said parents and loved ones should let a troubled teen know they are loved and supported but also inform them of the consequences of threatening violence at school.
“We have to have more of these (conversations) at home just like we have conversations about drugs and alcohol.”
Jennifer Chambers contributed.