The Fake School-Shooting Threats Getting Kids Arrested
“It is this very wide overreaction to everything that is school and guns, school and weapons,” says Megan Eaton, a public defender in Palm Beach, Florida. “Kids are being told, ‘See something, say something,’ without being told the consequences.”
America has witnessed years of horrifying mass shootings, some of the worst taking place at schools. While gun-control proposals to prevent these tragedies have been stymied by politics, communities are trying tactics that risk chipping away at First Amendment rights. Many experts see striking similarities between the way schools are trying to avoid the next Parkland and the way law-enforcement officials reacted to 9/11 by monitoring what people said online; they worry about a generation growing up accustomed to constant surveillance.
School leaders and law-enforcement officials say that they can’t take any chances, and that they won’t know what’s a genuine threat until they investigate. If someone is going to commit a mass shooting, research has found, there is a good chance that they’ll say something about it before carrying out the violence, which is why the Secret Service advised in a July report that people should tell school administrators or police if they’re concerned about a student. Still, administrators concede that they, too, are frustrated with the false alarms that always seem to pop up on social media.
“There’s an overreporting of these instances at schools because the administrators are afraid of something happening and they didn’t report it,” says Ken Baker, the head of the Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators, a trade group for high-school officials.
Of the nearly 20 people I spoke with for this story—including school officials, campus-safety experts, advocates for students, law-enforcement officials, and public defenders, as well as Jarrett and his family—everyone agreed that if someone reports a threat against a school, it should be taken seriously. However, there is a growing concern that in an effort to show how serious schools and police are, officials are imposing heavy sanctions on too many kids, potentially derailing their education and casting them away from their peers.
“We have students who feel like they’re being treated like potential criminals instead of students,” says Amy Klinger, a co-founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit that trains administrators on stopping school violence. Communities have approached school-shooting prevention by locking down campuses and surveilling kids, which Klinger considers counterproductive in many ways. “We’ve kind of gone overboard. Not all threats are created equal.”
While local prosecutors declined to charge Jarrett over the Snapchat post, Oakwood High School’s principal accused him of violating the student code of conduct by causing a disruption, and recommended expulsion. The superintendent put Jarrett’s expulsion on hold, allowing him to enroll in an alternative school program like the one he had previously attended, but on the condition that Jarrett undergo a mental-health assessment. While Jarrett’s family felt that the mental-health assessment was unnecessary, they say they reluctantly agreed to it to maintain options for Jarrett.