School leaders should brace for more of the kinds of threats that forced lockdowns and evacuations at campuses around the country last week after the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, experts warned.
Some of last week’s threats directly mentioned the April 16 shootings in Blacksburg, Va., while others referred to the Columbine High School killings in Colorado in 1999. The eighth anniversary of those slayings was last Friday, April 20.
The midweek revelation that Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech gunman, had referred to the Columbine High killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, as “martyrs” in a package of video clips and writings he sent to NBC News heightened concerns about threats of copycat violence—both genuine and false.
“Schools need to be prepared for a wave of false threats, and educators and the community need to do more educating to make it clear to young people that these threats are going to be taken very seriously,” said Dewey G. Cornell, an education professor and the director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia, located in Charlottesville.
“We have a segment of a whole generation of kids who have been inspired by Columbine,” he added. “There really is an idolization of those shooters that we need to address.”
In Salem, N.H., the local high school instituted a three-day ban on backpacks, purses, and sports-equipment bags to prevent weapons from being smuggled in, after teachers received notes the day after the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University promising violence on the Columbine anniversary.
Schools Superintendent Michael Delahanty said the district’s decision to keep school open on April 20 was a message to whoever sent the notes. “The question in my mind is, what happens the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that?” he said. “We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible.”
One day after the Virginia slayings, a public high school in Great Falls, Mont., was locked down for a time after a threatening note was found in a girls’ restroom.
A student found the threatening note on April 17 at about 12:15 p.m. on a toilet-paper dispenser. It said that “the shooting would start at Great Falls High at 12:30, and it would be worse than Virginia Tech,” Assistant Superintendent Dick Kuntz said. He said it was a hoax.
Such threats must be taken seriously and dealt with swiftly, said Gregory A. Thomas, a former security chief for the New York City public schools. He is now the director of a school-preparedness program at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.
“When you hear rumblings or that a kid has made some comment about killing someone, you can’t dismiss it,” he said. “You have to call them on it.”
In Bogalusa, La., parents picked up hundreds of students from the local high school and middle school April 17 after a man had been arrested for threatening a mass killing in a note to a student that alluded to the shootings at Virginia Tech.
“The note referred to what happened at Virginia Tech,” Bogalusa Superintendent Jerry Payne said. “It said something like, ‘If you think that was bad, then you haven’t seen anything yet.’ ”
Two days after the Virginia Tech slayings, a man was arrested in the Washington suburb of Gaithersburg, Md., after referring to them in an apparent threat to his child’s elementary school.
Mr. Cornell suggested that schools should not let down their guard, especially in light of the posthumous fame earned by the Virginia Tech gunman, which was reminiscent of that of the student killers at Columbine High.
“It’s pretty clear now that [Mr. Cho] was influenced, if not inspired, by Columbine,” he said. “And the airing of his videos and photographs is very worrisome to me, because the amount of publicity he has received could certainly stimulate more of this.”
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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Copycatting’ May Produce More Threats