Do 7 reported threats to Lexington County schools mean system is working?

Update, 10:05 a.m.: This story was updated to include an incident that occurred at White Knoll High School on Aug. 27.

Even before school was back in session this year, Lexington County police were responding to threats made by students against county schools. During August, the county sheriff’s department opened investigations into six students and a Lexington man charged for bringing a weapon onto a school campus.

Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said that while the rapid succession and volume of reports could reflect an increase in incidence, it also indicates that safety systems are working.

“While they’re alarming, they should be encouraging because these situations are being identified,” he said.

All of the students and the adult who made the reported threats were male, and four of the seven were middle school students, according to news releases from the sheriff’s department and school districts. Law enforcement and school administrators are not releasing the names of the involved students because they are all minors.

Some parents The State spoke to said they have warned their children about making jokes that could be construed as real threats.

“I’ve got boys. They go outside and shoot each other with Nerf guns. So I had to tell them in elementary school,” said Lexington 1 parent Lisa Kemp.

She said she spoke to her sons, a 9-year-old who attends New Providence Elementary and a 12-year-old who attends Beechwood Middle School, after the recent threats at Lexington 1 schools.

One of the threats this month was by a Beechwood Middle School student, who told a classmate he had a bomb in his book bag while waiting for the school bus on Aug. 27, according to police. An investigation determined that the student did not have a bomb, but deputies charged the student with making threats to a school. The school district recommended him for expulsion, according to a news release from Lexington 1.

Kemp said that as a PTA member, she spends a lot of time in district schools and she always feels safe. But she worries about how education’s increased focus on classroom time and state-mandated testing could be contributing to a mental health crisis. Kemp, 47, notices a different energy in her children than what she felt after school as a girl.

“I see how exhausted they are at the end of the day,” she said.

When she was a child, Kemp said she had recess twice a day, and enjoyed plenty of “unstructured time” during which she learned crucial interpersonal skills, such as conflict resolution and resilience. As the U.S. education system cuts back on physical education, arts and play time, Kemp said she fears that students are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders — and make reckless comments that could be considered threats.

That could be a root cause of the recent outbreak of school threats, Kemp said, and those factors should be taken into consideration when law enforcement and school officials decide what to do.

“If there are other incidents that would lead this to be more of a threat,” then the student should be disciplined, she said, “but if this is just a kid who said something stupid because he’s amped up after a day of being cooped up in school all day...”

Another Lexington 1 parent, Bart Laber, said he is always concerned about school safety, but he also worries about punishments being too severe.

“Kids say things and sometimes they don’t really know what they’re saying and they don’t really understand the weight of what they’re saying and they certainly can’t understand the gravity of the situation,” said Laber, 46, whose sons attend Midway Elementary School.

To Koon, whether the threat was facetious or not is irrelevant, because the sheriff’s department will investigate all reported threats. The safety of schools and students is too important to take a chance, he said.

“Gone are the days of joking about violence at schools because they all are going to be taken seriously,” he said.

As a father to a high school student in Lexington 1, Koon said he understands what parents feel.

“I want to see her come on home the same way she left in the morning,” he said.

However, even if a situation rises to the level that police press charges against a student, it would not show up on the student’s adult record unless they are tried as an adult. Juvenile records are not made public.

The first threat this month occurred on Aug. 12, when a White Knoll High School junior was arrested by police and charged with making threats to a school after he allegedly made comments online about shooting up the school and killing himself. The student was suspended and recommended for expulsion. Police released him to his parents pending a mental health evaluation, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.

On Aug. 21, two Lexington 1 students made threats. A Meadow Glen Middle School student sent “alarming texts” about harming Lexington Middle School students, which his parent found and reported to authorities. And at Pelion Middle School, a student told a teacher that he wanted to drive his truck into the school and shoot a group of girls who upset him, according to police.

Both students were recommended for expulsion, according to the school district. The Pelion Middle student was charged with making a threat to a school, police said.

Around noon on Aug. 27, James Edward Folk, 18, was observed driving onto the campus of White Knoll High School with an acquaintance and picking up a student, according to news releases from Lexington 1 and the sheriff’s department. Both the acquaintance and the student who was picked up are minors, and their names will not be released.

Another student on campus saw Folk and told police that they believed Folk had a weapon, the school district news release said. Witnesses also told police that they saw Folk with a shotgun at a nearby business, according to the sheriff’s department news release.

Folk was charged for bringing a firearm on a school campus and an additional suspect was also charged, according to police. A school district spokesperson said Folk is not a graduate of any Lexington 1 school. The district did not confirm whether or not the minor acquaintance was a student at the school.

The latest incident occurred on Aug. 28, when two Lexington-Richland 5 students at separate schools — Irmo Middle School and Chapin High School — made comments to others about “shooting up” their respective schools. Police determined that neither student had weapons in their possession, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.

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Lexington-Richland 5 spokesperson Katrina Goggins said the district would take “appropriate disciplinary action” against the students who made threats. Goggins would not say if the students were suspended or recommended for expulsion.

“We take all threats seriously and work closely with law enforcement to take proper and immediate action,” Goggins wrote in an emailed statement on behalf of the district. “Safety is a top priority, and this serves as a reminder that we all play a role in keeping schools safe. We will continue to work with law enforcement to ensure our schools remain safe places for our students and staff. “

In each case that has been made public, police and school personnel responded to the threats, but protocol after these incidents occur varies, according to Koon.

Once the sheriff’s department is called, police “immediately” track down the student accused of making a threat at school or at home and then speak to parents, guardians, teachers or counselors.

Police also speak to the student’s associates or friends, whoever knows the students best and figure out if the student has access to weapons or firearms.

The Eleventh Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office ultimately decides through a “triage” of the situation how the case should be handled, including if a student meets the criteria to require a mental health evaluation. Solicitors could not immediately be reached to clarify the office’s protocol for school threat cases.

Lexington 1 superintendent Greg Little, who manages the district of 27,000 students, sent an email to parents on Aug. 28 about the school threats. He commended how parents, student and staff have opted to speak up about concerning messages or exchanges.

“While I do not like when students make threats, I am very pleased with how students and parents have come forward with their concerns,” he wrote in the letter, which was sent through a district spokesperson. “I am pleased with how our administrators have responded with urgency, and I am pleased with how our partnership and communication with law enforcement has led to swift and decisive action.”

On Aug. 30, Pleasant Hill Elementary in Lexington 1 also tightened its morning drop-off procedures, according to a letter sent to parents. All students and their parents or guardians will need to enter through the main school entrance. Any parent, guardian or family members who wish to walk a child to their classroom will also need to sign in at the school’s front desk and provide identification.

As school districts took on major school construction projects in the past several years, administrators have invested in security upgrades, often bringing on consulting firms specializing in school security. Many schools now have lobbies visitors must pass through before even reaching the main lobby, and stringent identification protocols. At newer schools, glass is more shatter-proof and doors lock automatically. Students and teachers are trained in responding to active shooters.

But what happens when the threat comes from within the school or even within the classroom? It can be difficult to figure out which protective barriers — physical or not — guard best against those dangers, according to Lexington 1’s chief operations officer, Jeff Salters.

“Dealing with threats coming from our own students is a challenge. Many of the physical layers of security make it difficult for outsiders to get access to our facilities. Obviously, students can get through most of those layers,” he wrote in an email. “For students, we focus on mental health support, our tip line and awareness as key strategies to prevent internal threats. We partner closely with law enforcement to deal with the threats and make sure they are addressed quickly.”

Laber said he would like to see United States veterans brought in to schools as an additional layer of security. The veterans would monitor the student body and keep an eye out for potential threats, he said.

“They’re trained in how to do things, in how to protect and we could just have veterans [there]. Some of them would be very happy to be of service,” said Laber, who never served in the military because he had asthma.

Several school districts have taken steps to introduce anonymous tip lines and apps on which members of the community can report suspicious activity or concerning materials.

Lexington 1 opened a hotline through which reports can be submitted by phone at 803-636-8317 (leave a voicemail or send a text message) or email, at 1607@alert1.us.com.

All middle and high schools in Lexington-Richland 5 have apps that allow for anonymous reporting, district spokesperson Goggins said.

And Lexington 3 and 4 are implementing anonymous reporting systems that should be online within a month, spokespeople for the respective districts said.

Lexington County parents, students and staff can also report concerns to police, school administrators, school resource officers, counselors, teachers or other employees.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.