The recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., brought the issue of youth violence back into the headlines. People ask, “How could this happen?” and “Why weren’t the shooter’s threats taken seriously?”
Fortunately, the vast majority of threats made by children and adolescents aren’t carried out. Rather, they’re attempts by the perpetrators to feel powerful, grab attention or defend themselves against a perceived attack, rejection or ridicule.
But other threats can have lethal consequences. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, examples of potentially dangerous or emergency situations include:
Threats or warnings about hurting or killing someone.
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Threats or warnings about hurting or killing oneself.
Threats to run away from home.
Threats to damage or destroy property.
A report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation titled “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective” identifies three levels of seriousness for threats. Low-level threats pose little harm to public safety and in most cases don’t necessitate the involvement of law enforcement. An example is when a student sends another student an email message saying, “You’re a dead man.”
A proper response might include talking to the offending student, advising law enforcement and taking administrative actions in accordance with school policy.
An example of a medium-level threat is a homemade video of student actors shooting at students on the campus. Actors are heard yelling at other students, laughing and making off-color remarks. While the threat is specific, the intent of the perpetrators’ actions is unclear.
In this case, law enforcement officers were called in to interview all of the students in the video; their investigation determined that the guns in the video were toys and that the students didn’t have access to real weapons. Administrative action was left to the discretion of the school.
High-level threats pose a direct and serious danger to students and staff and require immediate intervention by the appropriate law enforcement agency. Threateners are likely to be charged with a criminal offense and prosecuted. An example is an anonymous call to the high school principal at 7:30 a.m. stating, “There is a pipe bomb scheduled to go off in the gym at noon today. I placed the bomb in the locker of one of the seniors.”
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that threats are more likely to be serious if any of the following risk factors are present:
Past violent or aggressive behavior, including uncontrollable angry outbursts.
Access to guns or other weapons.
Bringing a weapon to school.
Past suicide attempts or threats.
Family history or violent behavior or suicide attempts.
Blaming others or an unwillingness to accept responsibility for one’s own actions.
Recent experience of humiliation, shame, loss or rejection.
Being a victim of abuse or neglect.
Witnessing abuse or violence in the home.
Mental illness, such as depression, mania, psychosis or bipolar disorder.
Drug or alcohol abuse.
Preoccupation with themes and acts of violence in TV shows, movies, music, video games and Internet sites.
Cruelty to animals.
WHAT TO DO IF A CHILD MAKES A SERIOUS THREAT
Treat the threat seriously. Never dismiss a threat as idle talk.
Talk with the child. Try to determine the severity of the threat as well as the underlying cause and feelings associated with it.
Get an immediate professional evaluation if the child is at risk, refuses to talk, is argumentative or continues to express violent or dangerous thoughts or plans.
Contact local police for assistance if the situation is deemed an emergency or if the child or family refuses to help, or take the child to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.
Keep a watchful eye. Never leave the child who has made a serious threat unsupervised.