As Texas grapples with the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School mass shooting, attention has focused on what went wrong and what more can be done to prevent future similar tragedies.
But for every mass shooting, many more potential acts of violence are thwarted in Texas schools, providing valuable lessons in keeping schools safe.
“It’s hard to quantify how many incidents are thwarted because we don’t know if some intervention or an interview might have prevented something down the line,” said Ashley Gonzalez, Austin school district chief of police. “But I would say that more incidents are thwarted than are carried out. The system is working. The more involvement that we have and collaboration that we have between school, police and parents, the more we’re able to accomplish.”
More than 170 threats of violence were made in Austin schools over the last two school years. It’s not clear how many of those threats would have led to violence but no students or teachers were physically harmed in any of those cases.
“In a twisted way, it should give our communities a glimmer of hope that even though these plots and threats do exist in schools just like they exist anywhere else in the community, there are people who are trained and effectively intervening and preventing incidents and that it’s just not a futile situation,” said Ken Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.
School districts and law enforcement agencies are not required to collect data on thwarted potential acts of violence, although school safety organizations like the National Association of School Resource Officers have informally collected media reports about such cases over the last few months. The number of thwarted potential attacks spiked nationally in the aftermath of school shootings in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead on Feb. 14 and in Santa Fe that left 10 dead on May 18, propelled by copycats and heightened awareness to report threats.
In Austin, former Akins High School student Ariel Alexander Ramirez Navarro, 17, was arrested after district police received reports he wanted to shoot and bomb the school, prompting a four-hour lockdown of the campus. Police later found him in the Southpark Meadows shopping center where authorities uncovered a loaded magazine, ammunition and smoke bombs in his backpack.
At least four other students across Central Texas were arrested in the following weeks for making threats of violence toward certain classmates or schools. Nobody was hurt in any of those cases.
Investigating school threats
In the 2016-17 school year, 99 terroristic threats were reported in Austin schools, and this school year, there were 75. Since January, the Round Rock Police Department has received nine calls regarding violent threats to schools.
Austin school district police consider it a terroristic threat when a student has the means to carry out an act of violence — which could entail verbalizing plans or having access to a weapon — and if the student’s actions have stoked fear among the school community, especially if the threat leads to a lockdown or an evacuation.
Some of the most severe cases — particularly those in which a weapon is brought onto school property — can lead to charges. Last school year, there were 18 cases that led to charges of threatening school violence, according to the Travis County district attorney’s office. This year, 13 juveniles and two adults were charged with making a threat of violence toward a school.
“There’s a difference between posting a picture of a gun versus calling the school and saying, ‘I’m going to come shoot up a school.’ Clearly, that is placing people in fear. They have called in a threat, and it is a specific threat. If you post a photo, it’s very hard to determine what someone’s intent was, and you’d have to look at the totality of the evidence — were there other posts, things said to people?” said Mindy Montford, assistant Travis County district attorney.
Most of the juveniles who threaten school violence are first-time offenders, so they typically walk away without a criminal conviction. Because the cases are difficult to prosecute, the district attorney’s office works with the school district administrators, police and Austin Integral Care to determine whether a case should rise to the level of a crime or if a student needs help.
In some cases, the threat can be an obvious hoax, like posting a picture of a Nerf gun on social media, but school resource officers still must investigate it; the ultimate goal is to reassure the school community that they’re safe, said Robert Mills, who oversees the school resource officer program at the Travis County sheriff’s office.
“Every threat is a credible threat unless determined otherwise,” Mills said. Sixteen Travis County sheriff’s deputies are in Manor, Del Valle, Eanes, Lake Travis and Leander schools.
Austin school district police and the sheriff’s office take similar steps to investigate tips, but officials are hesitant to reveal specific tactics.
Mills said his officers are investigating at least one tip every week at any of the campuses they oversee.
Law enforcement agencies’ goal is to start investigating a report as soon as possible by doing in-person interviews with the person who reported the threat and the suspect. Mills said in every case, deputies visit the homes of suspects and interview their parents.
Most tips and rumors about violent threats stem from posts on social media like Snapchat and Instagram, and it’s usually students who report them to a school resource officer, teacher or administrator.
A student walking off the bus tipped police to the Akins suspect, and another student was involved in reporting two 13-year-old students who were threatening to shoot multiple people at Meridian School, a charter school in Round Rock, in February, according to Round Rock police. The students were arrested.
“Let your students be your eyes and ears. You’ve got two resource officers at your high school, but you’ve got 1,000 kids at those schools that can be your resources,” Round Rock Police Chief Allen Banks said.
Steps to thwart violence
School resource officers, selected for their years in law enforcement and ability to connect with teens, are leading classroom discussions on bullying and building rapport with students so they feel comfortable sharing safety concerns.
Many school districts also have set up anonymous tip lines. In Austin, students and parents are encouraged to call Crime Stoppers at 512-499-TIPS.
“If you see something, say something. I would rather investigate a thousand threats that turn out to be nothing than one that turns out to be something,” Mills said.
Local school districts and law enforcement agencies are spending the summer conducting training on how to thwart and respond to active shooter situations as well as to find money to expand school resource officer programs.
In the meantime, Mills said parents can play a part by locking up their guns.
Montford said lawmakers should consider harsher penalties for those who make a firearm available to a minor. The crime carries a Class C misdemeanor charge unless the minor causes harm with the firearm, elevating the crime to a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to $4,000 and a year in jail.
She also said school districts should create a zero-tolerance policy for making school threats, particularly as students often make such threats as jokes.