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Experts explain the psychology behind school threats

And the toll it takes on students
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Posted at 5:01 PM, May 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-06 10:35:02-04

Experts say there's a reason we're seeing more threats toward area schools right now.

Just this week, four bomb threats were reported at Kiel Middle School and another "credible threat" was reported within the Unified School District of De Pere. Many of the threats come just days after 21 people, including 19 children, were killed at a Texas elementary school.

"As a parent of a 10-year-old and a 2-year-old, and someone who's researched active shooter events since 2005, I'm scared and I'm worried," said Mike Clumpner, Threat Suppression, Inc. president & CEO.
Clumpner presented at this week's Active Threat Integrated Response Conference in Oshkosh.

He said people often make bomb threats to cause a disturbance or disruption. He said it's not uncommon to see an increase in threats following an incident like what we saw in Texas.

"There's something in psychology called the Werther Effect. What the Werther Effect essentially says, is you're going to feel after shocks and ripples that happen after these events. In some cases you may see a copycat event. In a lot of cases you're seeing other people who are using the fear that's here in the community as a target of opportunity," Clumpner said. "After Sandy Hook, there was a whole bunch of other bomb threats called in, school shooting effects - that's the Werther Effect that you're seeing."

While law enforcement need to investigate these threats - and act on them based on credibility - Clumpner said the tragedy at the Texas elementary school is statistically rare.

"The data actually shows us a school will operate on average 100 years before they see a homicide on school property," Clumpner said. "This is not the new norm. This is abnormal and we don't have to accept this. So everyone needs to be looking out for each other."

So how can we help kids cope as these threats toward schools emerge?

"As adults in childrens' life, the most important thing to do is to listen to them first, and then second of all to reassure them and just to let them know that we do care, and that we are paying attention and that we're going to do everything we can to protect them," said Travis Wright, UW-Madison associate professor of counseling psychology.

Wright said threats on a child's school can turn a traditionally safe space into a place where kids feel afraid. He said that feeling can impact their learning and ability to take in new information.

It's an even more challenging situation for kids who face adversity outside of school.

"Many who have difficult lives can't wait to get to school, because it's a place they feel safe and like they have a break from some of their other worries," Wright said. "I'm really concerned that when school does stop feeling safe for those children, they really don't have perhaps another place that feels quite as safe."

Wright said talking to students is the best way to find out what's going through their minds. He added it's also important not to overshare information.

"People typically ask for the information that they can handle," Wright said. "So as adults, we may actually be more worried or more aware of things to be worried about than our children. So we really want to make sure we're following their lead in these conversations."

Wright said giving kids a list of what's being done to keep them safe may make them feel more in control of unpredictable situations. He said parents shouldn't be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional for help if they'd like additional resources for their family.