How Local Communities in N.H. are Responding to School Threats

Feb 22, 2018

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Many local communities across the U.S. and around the Granite State are reassessing how they handle school threats and school safety and security. This follows a mass shooting at a high school last week in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead.

Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Merner has called for a public forum at Portsmouth High School to encourage dialogue between students and faculty. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with him about community response to last week’s tragic events.

  (Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Why do you believe it's so important to have a forum like this where you get students and faculty together and talk this over?

Well, I look at you know the way things have worked across the country. And there's a lot of folks that have weighed in on this issue for many, many years going back to Columbine, and Sandy Hook and others. And in this instance it's a high school. There are students that have been very eloquent and passionate about what's going on. But I look back going throughout my police career. Many times when the police start to look at an issue, they look at it from one direction, and the successes that we've had throughout our policing profession has come from the community, when the community tells you what they actually want, what they feel they need. And somewhere in between is usually the best response, and I just feel that it's best to hear from the students as to what they see, what they hear, what they feel. And part of that is building the trust with the students, and whether it's the police, politicians, city council, school committee or school administrators.

Because you want people on the ground, in this case obviously students and faculty, that would know of a threat to be able to talk with you, to be able to have that dialogue.

Yes. I have 64 sworn officers in Portsmouth. That's 64 sets of eyes. There are 1,100 students at Portsmouth High School. That's another sets of eyes. So I just look at it that the more that the police and the elected officials are part of the community as opposed to apart from the community, it's that much better for us and create[s] that open dialogue.

Many towns and cities in the state have been on high alert this week taking extra precautions with these allegations, and there's always kind of a rash of threats after one of these mass shootings. Weare and Henniker I know closed all of their schools on Tuesday. They were investigating a threat that was carved into a cafeteria table. Somersworth sent an automated call to parents Tuesday afternoon informing them of a shooting threat. How do local communities respond differently when these events happen and when these threats come in?

Obviously every threat has to be taken seriously and we see what can happen when some signs are missed as appears--and again without being critical of other agencies--it appears there were some signs that were missed down in Parkland, Florida.

There was some criticism that signs were missed and so on. But of course over the years there were issues with that particular student, the shooter. He was expelled ultimately. You know what can a community do, and what responsibility do faculty and students bear in these cases?

So you know having worked very successfully as a Boston police commander for years, we started a program called Operation Home Front, which was as students in the middle school and the lower schools started to run into issues, a visit was made to the home. It was police. It was clergy. It was teachers. It was probation officers. This is before any of the individuals got involved in the criminal justice system, but there were signs taking place and kind of that holistic approach. Whether it was you know some other social service agencies need to be involved, whether there was other things going on in the home from drug abuse or some type of domestic violence, or things that the child was witnessing and striking out. And again, in this case I thought it was 20 some odd police calls to that house. You have to cross a certain line, probable cause for arrest, but there are certain other things that can take place using the social service providers, police, school administrators to try and reach individuals. And again, even with doing all that, not every tragedy can be prevented.

How do you know when to notify parents and students of possible threats? There are parents who want to know of any allegation at all. But how do you give out that information without unnecessarily scaring people?

Clearly in this day of instant information I find that getting out as much information without compromising the integrity of an investigation or the integrity of an ongoing process is the most important, because if law enforcement and school administrators don't get the correct information out as quickly as they can and as efficiently as they can, then disinformation or misinformation will get out there by way of all the social media outlets. So I feel that you know we have to continue to maintain confidentiality and integrity in some of these cases in an investigation. But we also have to push out to the parents without overly or unduly alarming them to get that information out as quickly and completely as possible.

You've talked about how Portsmouth has performed drills and has specific plans in place for specific schools. What other kinds of training currently happens in police departments that you know of, not only Portsmouth, but maybe in other other communities?

We do the training for various schools [and] entities.

This is when you go in to actually talk with people in the business or the school about what to do.

It's a citizen response to active shooter events. It's making sure that we have relationships with all of the community, from the students to the business community, to the schools, to the hospitals, so that folks understand what to expect in times when something like that happens. I know that in talking with parents over the last week, some police officers that are parents as well, who had trepidation over the next couple of days dropping their kids off at school. And it's unfortunately has become a sign of the times that we need to make sure that everybody is trained, because when these events do happen, and the idea is that you hope they never happen in your community and you hope they never happen in any community, when they do happen we have to be ready to respond, both from the civilian or non-sworn population, as well as the law enforcement and first responder population.

How do you think local communities can continue to help prevent these shootings from happening in their own schools?

Again I just think dialogue is huge, and you know I'm someone that investigated you know shootings and murders for many, many years. And you look back and many of these kids were you know somewhat outcast or set aside from the so-called general population, or the in crowd, or whatever. You know in this age of social media with things like bullying, and being left out and being made fun of, that's something we didn't experience when we were in high school. I mean it's it's tough enough sometimes being an awkward high school student whether male or female. And then you have this added aspect of social media ostracizing individuals, and it's just so important to continue to have dialogue. We need to hear from the kids in the schools. We need to hear from the students as to what they're feeling, what they're seeing and what's going on.