WRAL Investigates

As school threat arrests spike, NC tries new ways to keep students safe

Posted August 26, 2019 5:15 p.m. EDT
Updated August 26, 2019 5:30 p.m. EDT

— After nearly every mass shooting, the number of threats skyrocket, according to law enforcement officers. That was the case in North Carolina, where the number of school threat arrests spiked in 2017-18, the same year four major public school shootings happened, including in Parkland, Fla. where 17 people died.

Court records show school threat arrests jumped from 35 cases in 2016-17 to 100 a year later. While many of the threats are hoaxes, some may have been real. With the school year starting, WRAL Investigates wanted to find out what new steps schools are taking to make sure students are safe.

NC school threat arrests by year

  • 2014-15 – 11
  • 2015-16 – 20
  • 2016-17 – 35
  • 2017-18 – 100
  • 2018-19 – 36

Source: NC Administrative Office of the Courts records

Russ Smith is senior director of security for the Wake County Public School System, which has resource officers at every middle and high school and a tip line for people to report threats. As students begin a new year, he is beginning a massive new project – a comprehensive safety assessment of all 191 campuses. An outside contractor will spend the next six months doing a deep dive into every school.

"What we expect is to hear a lot about what we're doing well in Wake County but also to identify the ways we can enhance our current safety plan," Smith said. "Threats do take place from time to time – hoax threats – and we take all of our hoax threats seriously and we work closely with our law enforcement partners to investigate all threats."

Most individual schools track threats, but Wake County does not. A review of WRAL News' archives found at least six school threats in the past 12 months, threats that were serious enough to trigger lock downs at Rolesville, Enloe, Sanderson, Athens Drive and Leesville high schools. Raleigh Charter High School, which is not part of the Wake County Public School System, was also locked down due to a threat.

Each threat cost time and money and sparked fear. As law enforcement officers and educators struggle to find the answers that will keep kids safe, they say the single best tool is good communication between students, staff, police and parents.

Earlier this year, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson announced the Say Something app, which will make it easier for students, parents, teachers and others to report possible threats or bullying. A smaller pilot program that rolled out in a handful of districts last year led to more than 100 verified tips. There's still some training going on with 911 centers to make sure tips get to the right authorities in each county.

"We train. We prepare for the unfortunate circumstance that this could possibly happen so we are prepared," said Raleigh police Major Michael Galloway, who has two children in Wake schools. "I’m very confident, and I feel like the schools are safe."

A handful of school systems in North Carolina have tried social media monitoring services, platforms and software designed to alert users to a range of threats posted to sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Dozens more are actively exploring the idea or being pursued by companies marketing the product, according to a census of every one of the state’s 115 school systems conducted by WRAL News earlier this year.

Contracts with these private firms can be comparatively cheap, compared to other security solutions. The two school systems that employ the technology in North Carolina spend less than $15,000 a year depending on their needs. And as schools grapple with concerns over school shootings – as well as other more common threats like fights and self-harm – administrators say the technology holds promise: Identifying when teachers, counselors or law enforcement officers need to intervene before something bad happens.

Amber Cullum says she worries about the safety of her children – Bennett, 10, Zoey, 6 and Levi, 3 – but she thinks schools and law enforcement are trying their best to keep students safe.

"There are definitely times when I enter the school and I think, 'Is it really safe?'" she said. "It always heightens a little bit when something happens in our culture that makes [safety] come to the forefront of your attention."

Her son Bennett said he feels secure at school, but if something did happen, he would turn to his teachers for help, like they do during school drills.

"I would probably be like a little bit worried and want to make sure – find a way to make it not happen," he said. "I’d try to find a way to tell the teachers, ask the teachers if there’s a way we could be safe from it."