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Michigan schools are figuring out how to respond to a flood of shooting threats

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Following the school shooting in Michigan last week, threats against other schools across the state have risen. Michelle Jokisch Polo of member station WKAR reports that school administrators are working to balance investigations into these threats with reassuring families that schools are safe enough to attend.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: Just since last week's school shooting at Oxford High School that left four teenagers dead, hundreds of school districts all across Michigan have temporarily closed their doors. That's after rumors of threats of violence surfaced on social media. Those actions made lots of parents both anxious and uncertain about sending their kids back to their schools - parents like Lynette Long, whose daughter is in 11th grade in a Lansing high school.

LYNETTE LONG: My anxiety was just crazy. And it got to the point where I told her, if you don't feel comfortable, then I'm fine with you staying home.

JOKISCH POLO: School administrators are struggling to keep schools open while also assuring parents like Long that their classrooms are still safe places to learn.

JASON KENNEDY: As I walked into our high school building this morning and saw a large number of, you know, police officers and police cars out front of the building, it brought tears to my eyes.

JOKISCH POLO: That's Jason Kennedy, superintendent at Fruitport Community Schools in West Michigan. While lamenting the current situation, he's rethinking the ways his district handles rumors of threats.

KENNEDY: To think that we've gotten to this spot in our educational systems where we even have to think about, you know, a large police presence at our school to help parents and students feel safe about being in school.

JOKISCH POLO: In the Detroit suburb of Center Line, a student was arrested after creating an Instagram account and posting threats. Joseph Haynes heads that school district.

JOSEPH HAYNES: I was walking around in buildings today, you know, speaking with kids and staff and just reassuring them. I think there's an understanding that a lot of this is just - currently is done to disrupt schools.

JOKISCH POLO: In some other school districts here in Michigan, keeping their students in school these days means relying more on some technology. Will DeFrance, the superintendent at Eaton Public Schools (ph) in mid-Michigan, says his staff uses software that scans messages sent by students on school accounts to look for words that contain any references to self-harm, violence, bullying or drugs. He says it's working.

WILL DEFRANCE: We're close to a dozen in the last two days of comments that kids either made or sent through emails that we needed to do interviews and involve police.

JOKISCH POLO: University of Massachusetts' Katherine Newman has studied the causes of shootings and says the most important thing schools can do is provide avenues for kids to share information in a confidential manner.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Think what they need to do is reassure everyone that they do take threats seriously, that they act on them by investigating, that there's a zero tolerance for weapons.

JOKISCH POLO: Back in Oakland County, the investigation of last week's deadly shooting continues, as attention turns to what role school officials there played before the shooting occurred. And while so far, none of the copycat threats throughout the state has led to violence, school officials are continuing the delicate balance of monitoring those threats while assuring safety.

For NPR news, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo in Lansing.

(MULATU ASTATKE AND THE HELIOCENTRICS' "ESKETA DANCE (TAKEN FROM THE INSPIRATION INFORMATION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michelle Jokisch Polo
As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.