Teachers, students on full alert over repeated threats against schools
Number of threats has increased since Florida shooting in February
HOUSTON - – A recent shooting threat prompted a two-day closure of Houston Community College's central campus and a rescheduling of final exams.
The threat never materialized but serves as a reminder of how disruptive these incidents are to students and teachers.
HCC's temporary closure also shows how seriously school administrators and police are taking threats of violence on campus.
The number of threats to students and campuses saw a sharp increase in Harris County following the shooting in Parkland, Florida.
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"Teachers were freaking out, students were freaking out," said John Jordan, head of the Harris County District Attorney's Juvenile Division. "Since Parkland, we've had such a huge amount of cases that have come in, it just made sense to track them as they came in."
Jordan said since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, the DA's office has filed at least 140 criminal cases involving threats against students and school campuses. Jordan said most of those charged were between the ages of 12 and 16, with some as young as 11 years old.
"We're trying to prevent the next Parkland," Jordan said. "We can't take any chances."
Echoing Jordan's comments, Pasadena ISD's Art Del Barrio said students who say, "I was just joking," still face tough consequences.
"Just like in an airport, somebody makes a joke in an airport, you're going to get in serious trouble," Del Barrio said. "You make a joke in a school, you're going to get in serious trouble."
Jordan said shootings at schools around the country show that administrators and police no longer have the luxury of assuming a threat is just a prank.
"Imagine if we treat it as a joke and that young person came back did something to our children," Jordan said. "The problem is this: It's not a joking matter. To claim it's a joke, there are 17 families in Florida who will tell you it's not a joke."
Jordan said taking a tough stance on threats is starting to have an effect on students because he is now starting to see the number of cases decline.
Schools report everything from smoking to assaults to the Texas Education agency. According to the TEA's database of these incidents, there were 405 terroristic threats reported by schools in Harris and all surrounding counties last school year.
"Certainly wears on teachers," said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.
Capo said constant threats not only disrupt the learning environment, there is also the potential to numb students and teachers to the possibility a threat is bona fide.
"The real concern is that when you 'cry wolf' too many times, people stop listening," Capo said.
One recent case involves an 18-year-old student from South Houston High School.
Michael Perkins is accused of threatening to shoot people at his school. According to testimony given during a probable cause hearing, Perkins is accused of sending a threatening text message to his ex-girlfriend.
Perkins was arrested by Pasadena ISD police, who reported the teen admitted to sending the text.
"Stating he wanted to shoot up the school, as well as saying he was serious about the messages," a prosecutor read from a probable cause affidavit.
When KPRC visited Perkins in the Harris County jail, he said he suffers from anxiety and depression and that he was being threatened by fellow students.
"I don't want to hurt people who are innocent, just the kids that bully me," Perkins said.
Almost every school district in our region has installed tip lines for students to report trouble anonymously.
There are also a multitude of school programs designed to confront bullying or help students cope with problems. Most school districts in our area either have police departments or employ school resource officers, who are stationed on a campus.
Crime Stoppers of Houston's Safe School Institute also provides free training and presentations to parents, kids, teachers and police officers on a variety of safety issues.
Del Barrio said another key to cracking down on this problem is tracing the source of a threat before widespread panic sets in. Del Barrio said the district's officers have become adept at quickly finding the sources of threats posted on social media.
"It's gotten so quick they're able to do it in about three hours," Del Barrio said.
All of these measures are not just aimed at dealing with threats of violence, but other problems that arise on campus.
According to the TEA's database, 1,168 assaults were reported on campuses across our area, along with 136 weapons found.
These numbers are small when compared to the hundreds of thousands of students in our region, but every district KPRC spoke with said each case is taken seriously and dealt with quickly.
"The accurate reporting of instances involving terroristic threats, assaults, and weapons is essential in evaluating the appropriate precautions and safety measures needed to keep our students, employees, and campuses safe," wrote Conroe ISD's Sarah Blakelock. "Over the past decade, the District has spent millions of dollars on a layered approach to campus safety including the installation of secure entrances and vestibules along with adding security cameras throughout our schools.
**A note about our searchable database. All the information comes from the Texas Education Agency. In numerous areas you will notice '1 to 4' listed under the incidents and students columns. Federal law prevents the TEA from providing a specific number when fewer than five instances of a particular incident occurs on a campus. Therefore, the TEA provides a code that indicates at least one or as many as four instances of a particular incident occurred on a campus. The TEA's database lists this code as -999. When KPRC took the state's information and created a searchable database we replaced -999 with '1 to 4'.
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