Criminologist talks about gun violence in schools
In the nine days since 17 people died in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, more than half a dozen schools in Southern Illinois have had to deal with threats or rumors of threats, putting communities on edge and parents concerned for their children's welfare.
Thursday morning, Cahokia and East St. Louis schools were on a soft lockdown because someone reportedly posted a shooting threat on Facebook. On Wednesday, Mount Vernon Police were investigating a threat made against the high school. On Tuesday, police arrested a teenager in Centralia on charges of making a terrorist threat and disorderly conduct.
In Vandalia, police investigated a threat that they say was made by a student who told officers he was only joking. In Salem, classes were disrupted by online rumors, but police there have found no reliable evidence of a real threat. School officials in Carbondale also have had to try to tamp down unverified rumors of a threat. There also have been threats or unsubstantiated rumors of threats investigated in Mattoon, Springfield and schools across the state.
But are these reports indicative of an increase in threats following one of the worst school shootings in history? Or are communities simply more aware and concerned following this deadly attack?
"I have noticed in the 10 years that I’ve been doing this that after a horrific event we do get a slight uptick in tips of that nature, yes,” said Lisa Pisciotta, executive director of CrimeStoppers in the greater St. Louis area.
CrimeStoppers does track the calls they get, but the group specializes in anonymously gathering information after a crime has occurred. The number of callers that reported threats to CrimeStoppers was not immediately available.
And because local law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation don't track threats, it's a tough question to answer. But local police agree that high-impact news affects how many people report suspicious activity.
"My personal opinion is we would just be more aware," said Capt. Bruce Fleshren, of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department. He added that he didn't know if there was a real increase in threats.
But, he said the media coverage drives people to report threats.
"My opinion would be everybody (goes) into heightened mode," Fleshren said.
Just a day before the deadly Florida shooting, a student in the Springfield area was charged with disorderly conduct after police say he posted a picture of an assault-style rifle on social media and threatened his school. On Feb. 4, a 17-year-old Du Quoin High School student was charged with disorderly conduct over vague threats allegedly made on social media. And on Jan. 13, a bomb threat found during a dance competition at a Clinton High School, north of Decatur, was found to be not credible.
"I think the question is, as a police officer, I'd like you to notice things that are going on all the time, not just during these events that happen," Pisciotta said. "So if you know something, or see something, call CrimeStoppers or local police or let a teacher know or a parent know."
"If you think something's hinky, it might be. So call us," Pisciotta added.
Many threats originate on social media, said Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Police Department Chief Kevin Schmoll. He thinks police are hearing about more threats that way.
"I think, speaking here at the university, that ... a lot of this can be intercepted by first the students or faculty or staff before they even reach us," he said. "People then report to the police, 'I saw this on social media, it may be nothing, I wanted to make you aware of it.' And we'll investigate it fully."
Schmoll said a few weeks ago the department received a report of someone threatening to "blow the place up" over an unexpected bill. Police immediately investigated and contacted the individual.
"(The person) didn't have the means, just upset about the bill," Schmoll said. "Those types of things, hopefully people let us know. You cannot anymore just not do anything. I think those days are over for law enforcement."
While the threats may increase, actual shootings in schools remain quite low, according to criminologist Dennis Mares, of the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Criminal Justice Department.
"Typically, we're talking about 40 to 50 children getting killed in schools each year, and many of those are not getting killed like in Parkland, more typically a beef between two students," Mares said.
He said juveniles are "much more likely" to be killed outside of school than at school.
Mares has studied homicides in St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles, paying special attention to the deaths of those high school- and college-aged.
Of the roughly 12,000 people killed in those cities in the various years that Mares studied, eight were killed at schools or colleges.
Of the almost 800 juveniles killed in St. Louis between 2008 and 2016, he said, one was killed in a school.
"That was a homicide that, when I looked at the data a little more closely, some of the data was confidential, it looked far more like a traditional homicide than someone shooting up the school at random," he said.
"It's just an incredibly rare event that gets outsized attention," he said. "I totally get it. If we do something about it, it may impact school homicides as well but hopefully impact all these youth homicides that are more common."
Mares is originally from the Netherlands, a country that he says has more residents than Illinois. He says the country has fewer homicides a year than St. Louis.
"We just don't have guns. That's the big difference, access to guns is far more restrictive over there," he said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not track the number of threats at schools, according to Brad Ware, media representative of the agency in Springfield.
"I don't know the numbers, but I would say that increasingly people are saying, 'Holy cow, report that,'" Ware said.
The FBI has a Public Access Line at www.fbi.gov where anyone can submit a tip in regards to any potential or past crime. Ware said that line averaged 2,100 tips nationwide a day in 2017.
Authorities still promote the tip line, he said. Ware acknowledged the FBI had received a tip that Nikolas Cruz, charged in the Florida school shooting, might attack a school. The FBI did not follow the agency's protocol and the tip was never followed up on.
"If anybody has any information, if they hear something, (if they) see something, then say something."
Mary Cooley: 618-239-2535, @MaryCooleyBND
By the numbers
Denis Mares, a criminologist at SIUE, studied homicide rates of several cities. Similar data was not available in each city, but his consistent finding was that school-related homicides are “just an incredibly rare event that gets outsized attention.”
- St. Louis, more than 1700 people were killed from 2008 through 2016. Almost 800 of those were children or young adults of college-age. One was killed in a school.
- Los Angeles, more than 2200 people were killed from 2010 through 2016. About 700 of them were children or college-age. Two were killed at high schools; two were killed at colleges.
- Chicago, almost 8000 people were killed from 2001 through 2016. Chicago data did not include victim’s ages, Mares said, but did break down by location. There were three killings in schools and colleges.