For weeks, Anchorage schools have been grappling with a wave of violent threats. Officials stress that while none of them have posed a real risk to public safety, they’re being taken seriously. But there has been little offered about why the cluster of messages is happening all at once.
Since early November, school threats have been in the news in Anchorage, trickling out in articles, segments and social media posts.
“We don’t have any information that these are linked, we’re all treating these as separate investigations,” said MJ Thim, communications director for the Anchorage Police Department.
The first message was found in a bathroom at Dimond High School on Nov. 5. According to a statement emailed to parents by principal Tina Johnson-Harris, the threat scrawled on a towel dispenser read, “I’m shooting up the school, I’m not joking. I have a gun in my (locker).” Similar threats followed at Service and Bartlett high schools, and Begich and Hanshew middle schools. Then another one at Dimond.
Amid the confusion, a social media post caused even more concern: an image started circulating on Snapchat suggesting there would be a shooting. Upon investigation, the post was proven to have originated out of state, but among a student body and community already on edge, people assumed the worst.
“The problem with this whole scenario is that it was shared multiple times without any context to it, and got misinterpreted as a threat against the Anchorage School District,” Thim said.
Police have begun charging the individuals they believe made the threats. According to Thim, four people have been arrested so far, all of them are minors, which means APD withholds the names and specific charges. More arrests are possible.
“We’ve still got open investigations for the outstanding threats,” Thim said.
What the police can’t say is why suddenly so many different young people at separate schools appear to have repeated similar threats in a similar manner.
But this is a topic that researchers have studied quite a bit.
Events like shootings, threats and suicides are often clustered together. A nonprofit group called the Educator’s School Safety Network found that in the weeks after the shooting at the Parkland, Florida high school in February, the rate of threats made against schools increased by 300 percent over the earlier national average. The theory is that the attention given to those kinds of events keeps the idea right out in front of individuals who might be inclined towards violence.
In Anchorage, the initial threat — and the attention it received — may be what kicked off the wave of imitation. Teenagers are particularly prone to these kinds of copycat behaviors.
Whether it’s suicides, threatening messages or physical violence, researchers and activists have a number of recommendations to keep from amplifying information in a harmful way. One is for less sensational media coverage that can inadvertently attach a sense of impact and significance to threats. Others include more mental health resources in schools and focusing on negative consequences from making even threats.