Challenges to books and threats to school districts have spread across the country in tandem over the past few months.
The two aren’t related in the vast majority of cases, but schools nonetheless need to be prepared for when a threat occurs.
In 2022, almost 6,000 school threats across the country were reported to the FBI, a 60 percent increase over 2021.
At the same time, challenges and debates over what books should be allowed in school libraries and classrooms have escalated across the country as well. So far, such challenges led to at least 4,000 book bans across the country from June 2021 to December 2022, according to the free speech advocacy organization PEN America.
The vast majority of book challenges do not result in threats or violence, but a small number do, according to the American Library Association, which documented 50 threats to librarians or districts in 27 states connected to books in classroom or school libraries over the past year.
A handful of districts, like Hilton Central School District in Upstate New York, have experienced more extreme threats because of a book.
Since March, the district has received four bomb threats from what appeared to be a Russian email address, according to local law enforcement. The threats were sent because of a challenge in the district to Juno Dawson’s This Book Is Gay, which was among the most banned book across the country last year, according to PEN America.
“The FBI takes swatting very seriously,” Jeannie McBride, the public affairs officer with FBI Buffalo, said in a statement sent to Education Week.
“These threats put innocent people at risk and cause significant fear in the community.”
Here are some tips from law enforcement for districts on dealing with threats of violence:
Have a safety plan
A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice guidance document, developed in partnership with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, emphasizes the importance of having a threat assessment and safety plan.
When Hilton schools heard about the threat from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, it followed the agency’s recommendation to evacuate all schools and relied on its emergency response plan that included instructions on evacuation, for example, leading students to a designated safety area, and taking attendance before leaving and upon arriving at the safety area to account for all students.
By the time a second threat came in, Monroe County police had worked with federal law enforcement to determine that the threat was likely not credible, so the district took a different approach: it sheltered the high school students, who were already in school, in place while police searched the schools, and kept younger students, who were on their way to campuses, on school buses.
“The reason for a different approach is the first time kind of caught everybody off guard,” said Brendan Hurley, the public information officer for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
Assess the severity of the threat
The DOJ brochure divides threats into different categories:
- Low risk threats are primarily aimed at causing disruptions. They lack realistic details or contain incorrect information.
- The wording in medium risk threats includes some indication that the perpetrator has thought about how the act will be carried out and may include details such as a time and place. It also may indicate that the perpetrator has details regarding the availability of components needed to construct a bomb.
- High risk threats pose an immediate and serious danger. They are specific and direct, and contain names and locations of possible victims, as well as the location of the bomb(s).
Even when the threats were deemed hoaxes, police still searched the school buildings every time the district received a threat, Hurley said.
“In law enforcement, I like to tell people that you don’t have the luxury of thinking ‘it’s probably not true, or a hoax’ or anything like that, because people’s lives are at stake,” he said.
The Hilton district’s threat assessment strategy is confidential, according to superintendent Casey Kosiorek, but he partnered with law enforcement in every case to assess the level of danger and take the necessary precautions.
Communicate with law enforcement immediately
In cases of threats, it’s important to immediately contact law enforcement, according to the DOJ brochure.
In Hilton’s case, the sheriff’s office alerted the district, and law enforcement and school officials coordinated a response. The district kept parents in the loop via automated messages, according to WHEC-TV.
“Schools are big buildings, that’s a heavy lift for law enforcement,” Hurley said.
“I think the most important part there is just a good working relationship and open communication between everybody involved.”