When There's A Threat At School, Anxiety Takes Toll On Students, Teachers And Parents

Mar 1, 2018

After the latest mass shooting at a school in Florida, there's one idea most policy makers seem to agree on: If you see something, say something. But in one New Hampshire town, school officials and parents are finding that's a lot more complicated than it might seem. 

Take the week after a threat was reported at John Stark Regional High School. Abby Burke is a freshman there.

“On Monday, everyone was really on edge. I know we were all kind of nervous about what would we do if, say, a lockdown was called.”

Students –and really everybody- was unsettled because of a threatening message scratched into a lunchroom table that was discovered last week.

English teacher Suzanne Carmichael says she was thinking about it even before she got to school on Monday.

“I chose my outfit that day based on whether I might have to move students out of the building, or would I be able to move desks? So that was pants and flat shoes, there were no high heels or a skirt involved. It was whether I was going to have wrestle with somebody potentially.”

With the news from Florida fresh in everyone’s mind, many parents didn’t send their kids to school Monday. On Tuesday, classes were canceled while police investigated the threat.

This episode at John Stark Regional High School is like so many others that have been reported in the wake of the latest school shooting in Florida, as parents, teachers, and students become hyper-vigilant.

And that’s exactly what public officials have called for. From the president of the United States down to the local police department in Weare, New Hampshire the message is: if you see or hear something that worries you, report it.

But parents of students at John Stark say they’ve been raising concerns for months – and they’re not sure it’s made their kids any safer.

“We did see something, we did say something. To me, it completely fell on deaf ears.”

That’s Greg Burke, Abby’s father.

I met with Burke and more than a half-dozen other parents who say their concerns center around a particular student at the high school. They say they’ve shared screenshots of threatening social media posts with school officials. And they’ve relayed the stories their kids have brought home about alleged threatening remarks made in the hallways.

It’s unclear whether the message scratched into the lunchroom table is at all related.

But the parents say it feels like all their tips are just going into a black hole.

“We just don’t know if this has been checked out. We don’t know if this student’s house has been checked out, we don’t know if he has access to firearms, we just don’t know really anything.”

John Stark Regional High School principal Chris Corkery says he understands the concern, but says he’s obligated by law to balance the privacy of the accused student with the public’s right to know.

“That’s a really tough balance. Particularly in schools because we just can’t share, legally we can’t share what is the result of an investigation that regards a minor. We just can’t do that.”

He says he gets why parents are frustrated when they report something and then don’t hear back. But he wishes they would trust in school officials and police instead of heading to social media to speculate about what’s going on.

“So this morning I was saying ‘see something, say something; don’t see something, don’t speculate on social media.’ That would be my comment across the board.”

By the end of Tuesday, police in Weare had announced that the investigation into the threatening message carved into the table turned up little evidence and would be suspended. They also said they were filing a juvenile delinquency petition against a student at the high school over allegations of threatening remarks and gestures. It’s unclear if that’s related to the concerns of the parents we heard from in this story.

The investigations may have wrapped up but people around town are still feeling anxious -- and that’s taking a toll on students, parents, and teachers.

Suzanne Carmichael, the teacher who chose her outfit to be ready for an active shooter on Monday, says the episode is forcing her to change her idea about what it means to be a teacher.

“You know, when we signed up for the job, you’re a public servant, you love children, you would do anything for your kids. You would die for your kids. You know you have that conversation as an English teacher about literal and figurative and now we’re really talking about literally.”

Parents in the district say they are rethinking things, too. The thought of homeschooling has crossed one parent’s mind. Another told me they’ve started putting bulletproof metal panels into their kids’ backpacks. Others said they would feel more comfortable if some school staff were armed.

Those parents told me they don’t hold out much hope that anything good will come of this. Again, here’s Greg Burke.

“I think that 17 kids died down in Florida and that very likely isn’t going to change anything. Columbine happened and nothing changed there.”

Burke says in two weeks’ time he expects the world will have moved on. But it’s not likely that he or the other parents ever will.

This report comes from The New England News Collaborative, eight public media stations, including Rhode Island Public Radio, joining together to tell stories of a changing region, with support from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting.