Stephen Dieu, a longtime school resource officer, had already dealt with a school shooting threat by the time he picked up the phone for an interview the afternoon of March 27.
Dieu, who serves as president of the Arizona School Resource Officers Association, said in his experience, threats of violence to public schools are near-constant.
“Every day in Arizona, at least one school is experiencing a threat,” Dieu said. “What hits the news and what’s just dealt with on a district level, those are two very different numbers.”
When a threat is received, no matter the form or credibility, the school maintains the responsibility to meet it with a certain sense of gravity.
Administrators, counselors and other school personnel must now perform a fine balancing act in ensuring school safety while assessing mental health interventions and discipline for the student threatening violence.
But, when a student is found to have made a threat without any true intent of action, the response can be severe, with students often facing expulsion, and in some cases, felony charges.
There is an undeniable and palpable anxiety living within any school under the ever-present threat of school violence. But juvenile advocates say, amid the fear, there is a level of retribution often disproportionate to the offense.
Threats to schools take myriad forms.
Front offices and police dispatches receive threatening phone calls, posts surface and circulate on social media, foreboding messages are scrawled in bathroom stalls, and students’ violent outbursts reverberate in classrooms.
Dieu said there are general guidelines for threat assessments in public schools, but policies differ from district to district.
The Arizona Department of Education requires a district to assemble a team consisting of, at minimum, a school administrator, a mental health professional and a security or safety officer.
Once a threat is received, the assessment team will first look at the details provided, as well as possible sources and whether the threat is credible.
The threat Dieu had intercepted before the interview March 27 was vague. A call came into the police station in which the person on the other line threatened a school shooting but did not give any details.
Dieu said officers first worked to identify where the threat could be directed, then notified districts and put precautions in place. With details like place or time, schools can respond with a heavier law enforcement presence, greater vigilance among staff members or communication to students and parents.
When schools trace the threat back to a student, they move forward determining whether the threat is truly credible.
Dieu said they assess the age of the student, the context of the threat, and the ability of the student to carry out the threat. They look at access to a weapon, if they have a target, a particular grievance, a history of similar behavior, or a plan, desire and ability to carry out an act of violence.
If a threat is not found to be credible, it is transient, or not truly reflective of a student’s intent, such as figures of speech, or ill-advised “jokes.”
But if the threat is found to be credible, it is typically referred to law enforcement where they can enact search warrants for the student’s social media or their homes.
In any case, administrators and counselors will interview the student, talk with their parents and assess the severity and factors the student may be facing.
Bruna Pedrini, an education attorney, said districts have an obligation to report serious crime to the police, like if a student were to bring a weapon to school.
“That is certainly going to require some law enforcement involvement,” Pedrini said. “The other principle that is going to be involved legally is that you have the broad ability of the school to discipline students.”
Pedrini said schools, “are trying to balance deescalating situations and keeping students in school.
Discipline available to school ranges from suspensions to expulsions. Arizona statute provides a school “shall expel” a student who threatens a school for at least one year, though allows for discretion if the student participates in mediation or community service.
But in some cases, schools, or other involved parties like parents, can press charges against students for making empty threats.
Since January, news outlets have reported a handful of students who have been arrested and charged for threatening schools.
On March 24, Nogales Police Department announced it had arrested four high school students across two separate incidents for making violent threats toward schools in the district.
On Feb. 16, two high school students were arrested in Sahuarita for airdropping a photo of a grenade with the message that they were “blowing up the place.”
On Jan. 20, a student at Marana High School was arrested for threatening the nearby elementary school.
Students who threaten schools are typically charged with terroristic threats and disrupting an educational institution. But the law is not crystal clear on what constitutes a significant enough disruption to proceed with charges.
Chris Phillis, a juvenile public defender, represents children as young as 10 facing felony charges.
“The way the statute is written is if it could potentially lead to a disruption of the school, you can get charged,” Phillis said. “And quite frankly, just about anything nowadays with the schools’ reaction can lead to that.”
Phillis said the juvenile court system and taking them out of schools can trap kids in “a vicious cycle” and permanently alter their course.
“It’s hard to get out once you get in,” Phillis said. “This seems like we’re putting a lot of effort into bringing kids into a system they don’t belong in.”