A Message from Supt. Miller: School Violence & Safety Threats

Dear Bixby Families,

I send this letter with the desire that we continue to work cooperatively to address past and future incidents related to threats of violence in our schools. It is important to me that we maintain strong lines of communication and that you have a high level of trust in our district’s capacity to respond appropriately to any unanticipated situation. 

Regrettably, I think it’s important to recognize that Bixby is not alone in dealing with the increased frequency of school violence and/or safety threats. A recent nationwide epidemic of violent school incidents is breeding fear, anxiety, and frustration for educators, children and parents. Suffice it to say, it is a very unsettling trend. 

As added context, the number of threats at schools often increases in the spring for a variety of reasons. Some students are aware of the anniversary of Columbine or other high profile tragedies. Students who have struggled during the year may have reached a peak of frustration or anger. Others may experience a surge of energy or exhaustion due to the flurry of activities, special events, and the impending close of a school year that leads to changes and increased anxiety.

At the same time, research done by law enforcement and other organizations that study these issues (as well as practical experience of school administrators) reveals that many threats of violence at school are made not to actually cause harm, yet with the intent of disrupting education. 

While the vast majority of these threats do turn out to be hoaxes, our district takes each threat we receive seriously. Our site leaders and SROs investigate the threat until there is convincing evidence to support a specific course of action. Regrettably, these investigations often result in disruptions to instructional time, misspent time by school admin pursuing evidence, the misuse of police resources, frightened children, and frustrated parents and teachers. The district experienced all of these with a recent threat at our middle school. 

Assessing the veracity of school threats is very challenging, so we often find ourselves walking a tightrope, trying to balance the very real concerns for student and staff safety with the pragmatic aspects related to allocation of time and resources. Despite the fact that the great majority of these threats turn out to be unfounded, we realize we cannot afford to make a mistake.  These are times where 99% accuracy is simply not good enough.

Generally speaking, the rule of thumb when assessing the credibility of threats focuses on the detail and specificity of the threat, the level of planning, the capacity to actually carry out the threat, and the potential motivation of the threat maker. In most cases, the more detailed and specific the threat, the more credible it may be.  

When evaluating threats, we also want to guard against overreacting and, instead, assess each threat with a rational and analytic approach. It can be tempting to move immediately to evacuate or close down a school out of an abundance of caution However, this may not be the most appropriate action, particularly if the credibility of the threat is in question. After all, if the goal of the threat was to gain attention, disrupt routines, or close school, then closure and publicity are likely to inspire additional threats. Disruptions elevate the level of stress and may cause the threat cycle to spiral. For these reasons, we work closely with law enforcement to conduct a joint evaluation of threats to determine what actions, if any, are reasonable and appropriate to implement in response to a threat report.

We also understand the importance of timely and accurate communications to you. Given the viral nature of social media and text messaging, incomplete information and/or rumors can spread even before we have had time to begin investigating a potential threat. This can lead to confusion, frustration, and lack of confidence in the school due to the absence of timely and detailed information. 

I know this is an area that has caused dissatisfaction among some Bixby families recently. We are committed to continue to improve in this area to provide you with the best possible information in as timely a manner as we can, while still respecting the need for discretion and confidentiality of sources and specific actions taken with individual students. 

Finally, I want to emphasize that we do take any threat seriously when it comes to issuing consequences to students. While the age and maturity level of the child is always considered, the district will continue to enforce very strong penalties for students who threaten others. These punishments could be as severe as an out-of-school suspension for up to one full school year if weapons are involved. 

In addition to school consequences, students who make threats of violence towards school are also subject to criminal penalties. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges don’t see these cases as harmless child mischief. Please take time to talk with your children about the risks of making overt threats or even sharing potentially threatening comments at school or on social media, even in casual conversation or in jest. Posting a picture of a gun with a date or containing an explicit threat is not a joke - it is a serious crime. Accordingly, the consequences of one poor decision can be life-altering for a child.

As I stated above, we care deeply about the safety and security of everyone in our schools. We also understand the importance of protecting the trust we have built with our Bixby families. Preserving a safe and positive learning environment for your children is a critical component of this relationship. We work very hard to meet this obligation and, when we fall short, I expect you to hold us accountable. 

As always, I appreciate your support of our district. Thank you for your attention to this important message.

Rob Miller