NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Sheriff’s deputies were investigating possible threats in multiple school districts across Middle Tennessee as students arrived for class earlier this month.
Both started with a “concerning message,” one circulating on Snapchat and the other written on a wall in the girl’s bathroom. While neither was credible, the students believed to be responsible were each charged with making a false report— a felony in Tennessee.
It’s become a common occurrence over the last few years as children appear to be engaging in more “disruptive,” violent behaviors, said Nicole Cobb, Associate Chair and Associate Professor of the Practice, Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University.
Before joining the faculty at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, Cobb served as the executive director of school counseling for Metro-Nashville Public Schools. Her research continues to focus on school counseling, climate and social-emotional learning.
“I get to be out in the schools a lot and do a lot of professional development for teachers,” Cobb said. “Every time I go in and we talk about ‘How are you feeling today?’ and just do check-ins, they’re constantly saying how exhausted they are because of managing student behaviors.”
It’s behaviors like a first grader flipping over desks or a kindergartner threatening his teacher’s life that Cobb said have become concerning, and it’s happening more and more. Cobb said it is particularly unusual to see elementary school-aged children engaging in those behaviors.
“That would have been something that would have rarely happened maybe three or four years ago, but it seems like it’s happening once a day in somebody’s classroom,” she said. “Certainly, as they get into high school, often the threats become more violent in nature.”
Two possible threats being investigated on same morning
On the morning of Nov. 7, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office sent extra personnel to Franklin County High School after a student reportedly wrote a message on a bathroom wall that indicated there might be a shooting at the school that afternoon.
That same morning, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office was investigating a possible threat circulating on Snapchat. Officials said the threat referenced third-hand information about threats of violence toward students attending Walter J Baird Middle School.
It was the sixth possible school threat reported to the WCSO this year. Capt. Scott Moore, a spokesman for the WCSO, said the number of threats reported has stayed “pretty consistent” over the last few years.
“It’s something that any agency across the country, whenever a school threat is brought to your attention, everyone takes seriously,” Moore said. “It’s something that we investigate here in Wilson County quickly and efficiently.”
Every report investigated this year has been deemed “non-credible.” Whether the statement was made “jokingly” or with intent to do harm, if investigators can prove that a student made the post or comment, Moore said they will be charged with a felony.
“I think that’s been an effective response, as well as the school system with their school disciplinary action,” Moore said. “It’s something that you can’t just let go. It stirs up a lot of alarm within that school that it was made, but also throughout the public.”
Even if the threat isn’t directed toward a specific student or teacher, Cobb said school threats and other disruptive behavior can be very alarming for others who witness those incidents. Some parents have pulled their kids out of school after hearing of threats.
After the Nov. 7 threat, the Lebanon Special School District superintendent told News 2, between the concerning message and students out sick, there was a 22% absence within the school district that day.
“What we’re finding now is we’re having to go in and do de-escalation and trauma-informed care and work with the rest of the class because it’s really scary if another student is in there flipping desks or screaming at their teacher that they’re going to kill them,” Cobb said.
The WCSO has investigated threats made on a school bus and comments made to other students at schools, but Moore said most reports are of threats posted on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.
“Snapchat is probably our number one platform that teenagers use when it does involve threats,” he said. “Where someone may be having a picture holding a gun, a knife, with some type of indirect threat in the caption.”
Why kids might be displaying more disruptive behaviors
What’s causing students to engage in more disruptive, violent behaviors may largely be linked to their home environments and mental health, Cobb said. While already a rising issue, the COVID-19 pandemic put further stress on children’s mental health.
A study conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration found that between 2016 and 2020, the number of children ages 3 to 17 years old diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29% and those with depression by 27%.
“What we know developmentally with young children and adolescents is that when they internalize stress and fear, it can come out in one of two ways,” Cobb said. “They either kind of freeze and they disengage… or it can come out in aggressive ways.”
Children who spend many hours at home alone or who are in an unstable environment may act out in attention-seeking ways, and for some, especially younger kids, Cobb said there’s not a “great understanding of making a threat and the consequence of that.”
“All they know is they maybe want to cause some chaos and get out of school, or exert some control somewhere because they have so little control in other parts of their life,” she said. “This is something they think in their head they can control now, but that’s often misplaced.”
Some students who are engaging in those behaviors have been found to lack certain social and emotional awareness Cobb said is usually developed at a young age. The social settings in which those skills are developed were largely unavailable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That resulted in a nearly two-year learning gap, which Cobb said left kids unprepared to handle some of their more complex emotions and social situations as they returned to school.
“So much of that skill development happens in kindergarten and first grade that if you miss that and your family isn’t explicitly teaching and modeling those behaviors, we’re asking students to do something that they never learned to do,” she said.
How do we ‘turn this ship around?’
In this day and age, no administrator can “take a chance” that a student’s behavior is harmless, and Cobb said officials should always “air on the side of safety.”
However, she believes the only way to “turn this ship around” is to create more social and emotional learning time, invest in mental health services in schools and partner with families to address needs within the home.
With a focus on getting students back on track academically, Cobb said some of those social and emotional developments are being overlooked.
“When you see a student over time demonstrating really troubling behaviors the answer isn’t expulsion, it’s to get them the actual help they need to get to the root cause,” Cobb said. “Because if we just keep expelling them, we’re not solving any problems, and in fact, we might be supporting a larger societal problem as they become adults.”
As one of the first agencies in the state to put a school resource officer on every campus, Moore said SROs in Wilson County are trained to look for clues that a student might be dealing with mental health issues or problems at home.
“Unfortunately, mental illness is affecting this whole country with a high percentage, as well as our school systems,” he said. “So, we go through extensive training, not only for active shooter training, but also looking for clues.”
Any changes in demeanor or causes for concern are communicated to administrative staff, and Moore said the appropriate action is taken.
Ultimately, Moore said SROs are there to keep kids safe, and when it comes down to it, “communication is everything.” Whether by a student, teacher or parent, any possible threats should be reported to law enforcement immediately.
“The quicker someone communicates a threat to the proper people, we can start an investigation pretty quick,” Moore said. “We want to investigate every single threat promptly and efficiently and take appropriate actions when necessary.”
However, in order to find a long-term solution, Cobb said officials will need to continue to take a deeper look at why this is happening.
“As we think about why it is happening, those deep issues like they may be feeling isolated or fearful themselves, or not feeling like they’re getting attention or seen and heard, if we could address those at home and at school, the hope would be it would manifest in less negative, disruptive behavior,” she said.