Truth or consequences: imaginary threats mean real penalties for students, families


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Pop quiz time: A student is having school-related issues and is upset with a particular teacher. Which of the following would NOT be an appropriate way for the student to address their issues and concerns?

  1. Meet with a school counselor to discuss these matters.
  2. Go to a family member or other trusted adult for advice on how to address the issue.
  3. Convince others to set up fictitious online identities and sabotage the school’s latest social media posts by writing disparaging comments about the teacher and threatening the safety of other individuals.

Unfortunately, this question is based upon a recent scenario at one of our schools. The student chose C, stating that she thought it would be “fun” to do. As a result, she quickly learned that posting imaginary threats carries very real penalties. Her actions resulted not only in school discipline, but she also faces the legal consequences of her decision.

Though situations like this don’t happen often, it seems that many students still do not understand the severity of consequences associated with making threats toward an individual or the school itself. One lapse in judgement impacts their lives, the lives of others, and jeopardizes their future. In today’s climate, “It was just a joke” means nothing.

Lieutenant Richard Lyon of the Genoa Township Police Department said his agency strives to ensure that the students’ safety is of the utmost importance.

“When a threat occurs against the safety and well-being of our students or staff at the schools, these will always be taken seriously,” Lt. Lyon explained. “With what’s at stake, we cannot and will not cut any corners. If we determine that someone has falsely created such a threat by writing, verbally, or through the use of social media, we’ll be diligent in filing charges on the individual(s) for the appropriate crimes.”

Lt. Lyon noted that with the time and resources that go into such investigations, along with the type of panic and unease they create, his agency feels that the criminal justice system is the best place to handle these matters.

“We want the parents in our district to know that we value the safety of their children and encourage parents to continue discussing the ramifications of making such bad decisions,” Lt. Lyon said.

In many instances, students aren’t the only ones who feel the effects of their actions. Several years ago in our district, the legal proceedings for a similar incident lasted more than a year in the courts. In that case, the student was charged with a delinquency felony count of inducing panic and was taken to the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center. Needless to say, this ordeal disrupted the family’s personal schedule, as well as their employment, as they attended to the issues caused by their child’s lack of discretion.

If school leaders begin to appear a bit more on edge soon, it’s not unusual for this time of year. As winter months start to fade away, there’s an unusual phenomenon that occurs just about every spring. Whether phoned into the school, scrawled as graffiti in a bathroom, or left in a conspicuous area as a crumpled note, threats tend to increase as the weather warms.

Even if they believe it to be a hoax, school leaders must take the threat seriously, work with other local agencies to determine the appropriate course of action, and launch an investigation. The disruption to the school day, as well as to the first responders who are deployed to assist, is both inconvenient and infuriating.

Westerville Fire Chief Brian Miller said false calls, whether it is a false fire alarm or threat, puts other lives at risk because there is a direct impact on the local resources that are available to respond to 911 calls they receive throughout the community. 

“If a threat has any shred of credibility, we request the appropriate resources and put them on stand-by, meaning they are out of service to take other calls,” Chief Miller explained. “We take all threats seriously and work very closely with our schools, as well as our law enforcement partners, in the communities we serve to make sure everyone is safe.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website, issuing any threat is the federal crime of Threatening Interstate Communications. “Those who post or send these threats can receive up to five years in federal prison, or they can face state or local charges,” the site reads.

It’s only natural that parents want to give their children the benefit of the doubt and trust that they don’t need to reinforce that making threats has consequences. However, just as school leaders must err on the side of caution, so too should parents. 

“It never hurts for a parent to have this conversation with their child,” said Tami Santa, coordinator of Student Well Being and Mental Health. “During any discussion about school, simply find an opportunity to reinforce the appropriate ways to address any school issues they may have, and that inappropriate approaches, such as using threatening language, even if meant as a joke, will have serious consequences.”

Santa noted that some parents and guardians may be concerned that discussing something that seems so obvious might make their child feel like they don’t trust them. “That’s not the case at all,” Santa said. “In fact, having these kinds of conversations isn’t about a kid being bad; it’s more a reflection of the adults being good caregivers.”

Families with questions about student mental health and well-being are encouraged to contact the appropriate school counselor. A complete list of counselors and other resources are available online at www.wcsoh.org/wellbeing.