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Report finds Arizona schools deal with more than 500 gun violence threats each year

Last week, the Arizona Republic published the latest in a series of articles on guns in schools. For the piece, reporters L.M. Boyd and Yana Kuchinoff wanted to find out how often schools were calling the police in response to students making gun threats.

They requested records from municipal police departments across the state, and the result was about 2,200 reports across a four-year period — an average of over 500 incidents a year.

The Republic analyzed the reports, and spent months following up with students, police officers, school officials and child psychologists.

L.M. Boyd sat down with The Show to talk about what they learned.

Full conversation

BOYD: If we average out how often these emergency calls came into police from 2019 through most of 2022, on average, it was about 10 times a week.

DINGMAN: Yeah, these numbers to me were pretty startling. Like I think it is obviously well documented that we have a huge problem with violence in schools. But what was revealed here is that we also have a massive problem with threats of violence in schools a— nd not just the fact that the threats are being made, but how to deal with those threats. And one of the case studies that you present in the story is a student at Desert Willow Elementary School in Kingman, Arizona. I wonder could you give us a quick summary of, of why this student story is such a good illustration of this problem?

BOYD: Yeah, so that story stuck out to me as well. This was the case of a boy. He was removed from his class after saying that he wanted to shoot his teacher, burn the school down. This threat came from maybe an episode he was having when he wasn't doing well in a trivia game. So he was removed from the class. His, his parents had to come pick him up from school. Police did arrive at this boy's home and ultimately referred him on charges for misconduct.

DINGMAN: And one of the other harrowing details that stuck out to me in that story is that the parents, when the police spoke to them said, basically, that they thought that police intervention and charges might be good for him.

BOYD: That's correct. According to this police report, the parents requested that this elementary school-aged boy be be charged in order to learn consequences. It's, it's tough to see where that led. Did that help him get the resources that he needed? We're not sure. We're not able to to, to see the full conclusion of these incidents from just a police report. But we do know that a few months later, a similar incident happened where he had an episode at school and was removed from the classroom. Police came to the school, same thing. He was referred on charges for misconduct once again.

DINGMAN: So as you dug into the stories behind these statistics, these these 2200 incidents, would you say this student story is a common tale?

BOYD: It is. You know, when, when school workers are overwhelmed with their workload and high amount of students in their classroom and, and kids are making these threats, they have to be taken seriously. And I think there's this knee-jerk reaction to involve law enforcement to handle an incident where a kid is making a threat.

DINGMAN: Is there any standard in schools for what the school has to do in reaction to one of those threats? Or does it vary school to school?

BOYD: The Arizona Department of Education recommends that schools develop a threat assessment protocol in a threat assessment team. But I did not really see that as the norm when reviewing these incidents. It does vary school to school. We found incidents — see there was one in, in Glendale in 2022 where high school student posted a threat to his school website over spring break. And mother told police that this boy was being bullied, being targeted for his sexuality and for his race. And so that was taken into account with, with how adults responded. And rather than being charged, this boy was instead enrolled in online schooling and put on a health and safety plan. Which, just judging from the reports, that seemed to be fitting for this boy and maybe putting him back on a path for stability. So it was just interesting to see how the adults responding can make the most difference in, in how a child moves forward.

DINGMAN: You know, I think most people hearing this would agree that the safest thing to do when someone reaches the point where they are threatening violence is to remove that student from the environment of other students. But it is generally students who are feeling isolated — whether through bullying or other factors from their fellow students — that are most likely to commit violence. So this is a real dilemm. Like, how can the schools identify the students who are being isolated and try to intervene on their behalf whil, also taking them seriously as, as threats to public safety? What does your reporting suggest about how schools are trying to untie that knot?

BOYD: Yeah. So first thing that comes to mind was my interview with Matt Liston, who's with the National Association of School Resource Officers. And he said that the most important thing when school workers are are conducting a threat assessment is to find an adult at that school that that child trusts. The adult sits with them, disarms them, helps this child feel comfortable to talk about what's really going on to get to the heart of the issue. And if they can't find an adult, that's a serious proble. And a failure on, on the school's part.

DINGMAN: What if anything did your reporting reveal about the degree to which schools are taking these environmental factors into consideration?

BOYD: I spoke to Elise Menotti, who works in securing grant funding for schools to enhance safety. And that encompasses, you know, security measures against potential threats. It also encompasses having anonymous reporting lines, mental health staffing. She raised an interesting point. You know, there's no rule that schools are required to track how often kids are making threats. But they are required to keep track of how often kids are bringing guns to schools. If schools can accurately track these threats, track these gun incidents, that is going to help a school make a case for grant funding. Like you need to be able to demonstrate a need. And the best way to do that is by accurately reporting and complying to federal law to track these incidents.

DINGMAN: And just to hammer on this point of the importance of reporting, in a previous article in this series, I believe you and your team pointed out that to the extent that the reports are federally mandated, most states are at more than 80% compliance, and Arizona is under 40%.

BOYD: Yes. And Dr. Paula McCall, she said that when you have law enforcement working cohesively with a mental health worker, it can be one of the most powerful collaborations that you can see in a school.

DINGMAN: Paula McCall is one of the child psychologists that she spoke to for the piece

BOYD: Yes, Chandler, from Chandler.

DINGMAN: Yeah. I guess in closing, you've been reporting on this for a while, this article is part of a larger series. What have been the most surprising things that you have found based on what your assumptions about the issue were as you began this, this process?

BOYD: One thing that, that has really resonated with me in talking to Dr. McCall was when she, she pointed out how in the last 20 years, we've made strides in how we respond to mental health issues and how we respond to kids struggling with mental health, struggling with suicidal ideations. And she points to the fact that there are overlaps in the state of mind that a child is in when they are threatening self-harm or suicide and a child that is threatening violence against their peers. So if we can approach a child that is threatening harm to others with that same compassion and urgency to connect them to resources, then we will be serving that child.

DINGMAN: L.M. Boyd breaking news editor at the Arizona Republic. Thank you so much.

BOYD: Thank you.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.