School leaders everywhere will likely remember last December’s TikTok challenge that encouraged students to make threats of shootings, bombs and violence against schools. Some schools enhanced security protocols while others canceled classes entirely. Many of the threats were ultimately unverified, but even rumors of potential school violence were enough to incite major panic for parents and put school leaders across the country on high alert, eSchool News reports.

Though many students see social media challenges as a rite of passage or a way to fit in with their peers, what they may not realize is that students caught participating in those that make threats of violence or engage in destructive behaviors face severe consequences — including criminal charges in some cases.

Schools must work with parents to inform students of the consequences associated with participating in these dangerous viral challenges. And with the spike in school violence over the last year, every threat should be taken seriously. So, what can schools do to ensure students and staff remain safe?

Early prevention

Districts can start by monitoring social media posts to understand and anticipate which ones may be relevant. And teachers and school site staff should be hyper-vigilant in observing student behavior, taking note of students who are quicker to get angry and trying to understand what those triggers are to avoid pushing them past their breaking point.

We also need to understand that although it may be necessary under certain circumstances, the purpose of threat assessment is not to punish students or send them to jail, but rather provide them with assistance — like mental health support — and prevent situations from escalating.

Analyzing future threats and long-term prevention planning

In an analysis of targeted attacks of school violence, the U.S. Secret Service found that plotters showed six common concerning behaviors in the months — and sometimes years — prior to acting on their plan. Those six behaviors are:

  • Threats indicating intent to attack
  • Interest in violence or topics associated with violence
  • Weapons-related behaviors
  • Harassing or threatening others
  • Exhibiting a concerning mental status
  • Extreme changes in behavior

It’s important that every student has at least one adult within the school that they trust and feel safe disclosing information to. These existing relationships are necessary for students who observe dangerous behavior in their classmates, as well as those displaying the signs.

Another important part of prevention is cultivating relationships between the school and the community — this is a case where schools can use social media to their advantage. If the community is involved in the school and aware of positive news, they’ll be less apt to believe unverified rumors or be overly critical of school policy (which can be a hindrance during the emergency response process).

Strategies and tips for coordinated school emergency response

A coordinated response to any crisis requires preparation. Here are the plans districts must have in place to be able to respond effectively when a crisis strikes:

  • School emergency operations plan. A school emergency operations plan (EOP) is a multi-hazard plan that is intended to be used for all emergency events. The plan should include details for prevention, response and recovery. An EOP needs to be dynamically tested through regular drills and exercises and revised as needed. Emergency situations are fluid, and you can never truly plan for every contingency, but if you have a basic plan that has been practiced, the intent is that it can be easily modified as needed to fit the given situation.
  • Crisis communication plan. Crisis communication plans are needed for both internal and external communication. Information needs to be released strategically, presenting only necessary facts without bias or speculation. There is a fine line between being transparent and providing too much information that becomes counterproductive and can escalate the crisis situation.
  • Tools for coordinated response/recovery. Schools should use technology and rapid-communication tools to streamline emergency response and recovery procedures. A key advantage for response teams is a mobile panic button that seamlessly integrates with their existing emergency management system and alerts essential school personnel to initiate the response plan.