COLORADO SPRINGS — As school districts across the country deal with an increasing number of violent threats online, News 5 is taking a closer look into how they're handled.
"The police are on their way, we can see police driving up, the school knows about it, they're handling it," said Daniel Luu, Academy School District 20 parent.
It's been a couple of weeks since the rumored threats at Chinook Trail Middle School in Colorado Springs.
"I got a call from my son about noon or so saying that there is this threat going on. I asked what it was about, and he sent me some screenshots," said Luu. "My son had asked me to pick him up, and my answer was no."
Luu says the Colorado Springs Police Department along with administrators were already handling the situation, and all he would do was make it worse by showing up.
"It so happens that it was on a Tuesday. My son does gymnastics so he gets let out of school at 1:20 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday. I told him that I would show up at 1:20 p.m. like I always do, and I showed up and the line was all the way to the parking lot with parents wanting to pick up their kids from what they thought was a threat and active shooter situation," said Luu.
Despite rumors of a possible shooting threat, Luu says he was shocked to see hundreds of parents lined up outside of the school.
"It makes zero sense because if there was any danger. All of the resources at the time were put toward handling those parents who were rushing in to pick up their kids," said Luu.
Some parents were demanding more information about the rumored threats, and the student who made them.
"I've been a very involved parent in District 20 so I kinda have a better sense of how they do things. Parents think they can demand information they think is important to them. Whether it's disciplinary action, security protocols, or how the curriculum is being chosen. Parents think they can go in and dictate to the district, without knowing how the process is working. Transparency to me is, District 20 is doing pretty good. Could there be an improvement, there is always room for improvement,"said Luu. "I have two kids, the district has 26,000 kids. We can't always expect teachers and administrators to drop what they're hired to do which is teach our kids."
Other parents like Lara Matisek believe there should be 100 percent transparency and a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to threats.
"I know its hard with FERPA and all of the information they can or can't give so I understand that their hands may be tied a little bit but I would like to know that the student has been immediately removed from the school grounds, will not be permitted back into school until a full investigation is done. If it was found that they did make a threat, joke, or not, I would like to know that the student was permanently expelled from that school, but also from the entire district," said Lara Matisek, Academy School District 20 parent. "The communication needs to show that they won't tolerate joking around about violence in schools or threats to the school."
When a threat is made, Matisek also would like to know what the district is doing to prevent it from happening again.
"I think it's important to address the underlying issue, joking or not, of why a child thinks it's okay to make threats against a school. I really think that we owe it to the child to find out what is going on at home or isn't going on at home. I think it's important our school prioritizes mental health, social and emotional learning, and DEI initiatives. Things to help our kids feel included and welcomed so they aren't taking these extreme retaliatory measures because they maybe don't feel welcomed or accepted," said Matisek.
"We will be completely transparent with you about where the threat stands, about the safety of your students, what we're doing to keep your student safe. Maybe what we can't always be transparent about is how it's impacting the person who made the threat or what consequences they will receive. We have to protect the rights of those involved," said Allison Cortez, Chief Communications Officer with Academy School District 20. "It's a fine line that we have to walk because we have to consider privacy and FERPA for our students and staff, but what we can tell you is that if your school or child is in danger, you're going to hear from us."
The district says anytime a threat is reported, the security team is immediately notified.
"When a threat comes in, we don't say it's 5:30 p.m., we're going to wait until tomorrow. We've had threats come in at midnight, 2 a.m., and we stop everything. We wake up, get out of bed, and it's all hands on deck," said Cortez.
She says how the tip is reported steers the process, and how the situation is handled.
"There are some threats we can handle completely on our own with our security team. We can identify where it's coming from, sometimes that student may be in the class, and we can take care of it right there. We don't need to bring in external forces, but sometimes it is bigger than us, and when we need more help. That's when we will bring in Colorado Springs Police or the El Paso County Sheriff's Department," said Cortez.
She continued, "A threat is anything that puts the lives of our students or anyone on our campuses in danger. Anything that would cause a blip in your safety while you're in our schools, that's what we consider a threat."
"A threat of violence against a school. We get some things that are labeled threats, it could be these two kids are trying to fight each other, but the ones we get hot and heavy into are the ones about bringing a gun to school, shooting up the school, or some kind of violent act toward students or staff," said Jim Hastings, Commander of Security Operations for Colorado Springs School District 11.
District 11 also begins investigating a reported threat immediately.
"If we get a tip through , if we have a name, the police start investigating. They may contact the student or person who made the threat to see the validity of it. Of course, we notify the school, and the schools also get the Safe to Tell tips. At that point, we provide some extra security, depending on the severity of the threat and what comes out of the investigation," said Hastings.
With the growth of social media, both districts have had to adapt to how they handle reported threats.
"The old model where we would wait a little while then send out the communication doesn't seem to be working very well. This most recent threat at Chinook informed us that one share on social media is too many and we need to get out and communicate about that," said Cortez.
"A lot of what we get at Safe2Tell is a social media post that's been forwarded to them then forwarded to us," said Hastings.
Colorado Springs Police say they deal with two types of threats. Transient can be made verbally in the classroom or Substantive which are reported to administrators, school resource officers, or Safe to Tell.
"We start right at the source. You want to find out from the student or parent who reports it. What did you hear? What exactly was the context? So many times, there isn't context behind it, somebody heard from somebody else who heard from somebody else. We'll go back as far as the chain takes us to that individual to find out hey where did you hear this from and what was the context of it. A lot of the time it has completely changed from the original threat, that there wasn't a threat. We track them all down, we want the information, we will take it as far as we can, but a lot of the times we run out and find out it's a rumor," said Pam Farmer, Sergeant with the School Resource Officer Unit.
Reported threats go immediately to their office, administrators, and security teams.
"It is very collaborative, there are a lot of people involved. We'll get resources where they need to be, and really it's about talking to people and finding out what information they have," said Farmer.
Police along with District 20 and 11 say it's important that the public doesn't go to social media with any reported threats as it can spread misinformation.
"Don't go to Facebook, don't re-share it seeing if others have seen it. Notify us, administrators, go through the right channels," said Farmer.
Farmer also encourages parents to be good examples of gun safety and talk to their kids about social media.
"My daughter has zero social media, she has zero cell phone, we don't allow her on any social media platforms. I think SnapChat, Tik Tok, those sorts of things are really meant for adults. I think if they started out for kids, they've taken on a whole new light. I'm not going to tell another parent what to do or to do things the way we're doing it but I would strictly monitor if my child had a cellphone or IPAD that they had access to. Monitor their social media, know who they're talking to, and make sure you're involved," said Matisek.
From Aug. 1, 2020, through July 31, 2021, Safe2Tell received a total of 11,388 tips, and 95.2% of those were actionable tips—excluding test tips, duplicate reports, pranks, and hang-ups. This is a 45% decrease in the number of tips received compared to the 2019-2020 school year, following continuous increases in tip volume for the previous several years.
Tips regarding suicide (2,305), drugs (616), and bullying (415) continue to be the top threats reported to Safe2Tell.
“As Colorado students continue to navigate the pandemic and its impact on their daily lives, we must all remain vigilant and do what we can to ensure their safety,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. “This holiday season, which can be stressful in the best of times, is now a time that calls for enhanced awareness of school safety challenges and of health and wellness amidst a pandemic and the end of a very stressful year. Together, we can provide support and resources for our students.”
“Our commitment to Colorado students exists every day of the year, regardless of the challenges they are facing,” said Safe2Tell Director Stacey Jenkins. “During the past year we continued to reach out to our communities—including through COVID-19-specific, statewide outreach made possible by CARES Act funding appropriated to Safe2Tell by the General Assembly—to remind them that Safe2Tell is always available.”
To make a report, individuals can call 1-877-542-7233 from anywhere, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Reports also can be made at Safe2Tell.org or through the Safe2Tell mobile app which is available on the Apple App Store or Google Play.