A Lagniappe Roundtable Discussion Threats
Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 the number of school shootings in the United States has been on the rise. Each time they occur they receive extensive coverage in the news media, leaving many parents and students fearful that their schools could be the next target. Since the start of this school year a number of students in Calcasieu Parish have been arrested for making threats against local schools. These have been reported in the local media, but because they involve juveniles few details have been provided, leaving people to wonder how serious these threats were and what happened to those arrested. The purpose of this forum is to shed light on this situation without infringing on the rights of those arrested, and to inform parents of what they can do to ensure their children don’t wind up, intentionally or inadvertently, on the wrong side of the law.
Participants: Michael Kurth; Karl Bruchhaus, superintendent of Calcasieu Parish Schools; Tony Mancuso, sheriff of Calcasieu Parish; William Sommers, director of the parish Office of Juvenile Justice; and Sara Pesic, a licensed and board certified counselor and owner of Freedom Life Solutions in Lake Charles. Karla Wall of Lagniappe Magazine compiled this special roundtable report and Kerri Cooke of Lagniappe Magazine captured the images used here.
MICHAEL KURTH: Let me begin by asking this: How many students have been arrested in Calcasieu Parish since September?
KARL BRUCHHAUS: Fourteen.
TONY MANCUSO: In all, there have been 30 incidences this school year, with 14 resulting in arrests. In addition to the school board, the Sheriff’s Office was made aware of threats through social media and personal communication.
MICHAEL KURTH: If a student or a parent reports a threat against a school, what is the process? Does the school initially investigate it?
KARL BRUCHHAUS: The school system goes through a normal process based on our policy and our code of conduct, from a discipline perspective. There’s no cookie cutter pattern to this. Every case is looked at differently. From the school’s perspective, if you have a student who’s already been disciplined for other things many times, it’s going to be a more serious issue from a school’s perspective. Then we call the Sheriff’s Department – always.
MICHAEL KURTH: So anything reported to a school is also being reported to the Sheriff’s Department?
KARL BRUCHHAUS: Correct.
TONY MANCUSO: And vice versa. We’re not just going to open an investigation without letting the school board know about it.
KARL BRUCHHAUS: We are joined at the hip.
TONY MANCUSO: We’ve taken a zero-tolerance stance on school threats, but we are still learning the best way to implement this policy. There have been some instances where a threat was initially portrayed as being more serious than it actually was, but regardless, we have to assume that any threat, no matter how insignificant or minor, is real and we have to do something about it. Some cases can be handled better by the school, but in the beginning each case is going to be handled by law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Department is going to investigate it because if we don’t, we risk something terrible and tragic happening.
MICHAEL KURTH: In virtually all school shootings there have been indicators — warning signs — that were overlooked or ignored: the shooter had posted something on social media or talked with friends about shooting up the school. School shootings are almost never spontaneous acts; they are planned over some period of time. It’s not good enough to respond after shots are fired — in the most recent school shooting in Santa Clara, Cal., it took just 16 seconds and two students were dead and three wounded — you must respond to a threat before the shooter acts.
KARL BRUCHHAUS: There are people who have come and said to me, “Oh, these are just kids being kids.” But from our perspective, there’s very little room to allow any leeway for kids to be kids. I’m not going to say never, but you have to investigate each situation.
TONY MANCUSO: I’d rather have a parent be angry with us and say we’re overreacting than to do the opposite and have something happen.
KARL BRUCHHAUS: Imagine you have a middle school child sitting in a classroom and another middle school child says, “Hey, tomorrow I’m bringing a gun to school and shoot up this class.” The students who hears that goes home and tells their parents. I promise you the parents’ attitude is not going to be, “Oh, that’s just a kid being a kid.” In this day and age parents want these cases taken seriously.
MICHAEL KURTH: What happens after a student is arrested. Are they taken to the parish jail?
TONY MANCUSO: No. Initially, all of them were sent to Juvenile Detention Center, but the parish recently opened MARC – the Multi-Agency Resource Center — and now we send some of them there for evaluation. It depends on the case; they are not all the same, and as I said, this is a work in progress.
WILLIAM SOMMERS: MARC is not a holding facility; children don’t stay there. It is next door to the Juvenile Detention Center. We met with a school resource officer, Lt. Mike Walker, and the Sheriff’s Department adjusted its policy. Some of those arrested now go to the MARC Center in lieu of the Juvenile Detention Center.
TONY MANCUSO: If a threat does not rise to the level where an arrest is necessary but is serious enough that we need to remove a student from their school, then we send them to MARC and conduct an investigation.
MICHAEL KURTH: How does that work?
TONY MANCUSO: We start by doing what’s called a Juvenile Inventory for Function screening to find out exactly what’s going on with the child. I think we’ve had at least two children referred to the MARC Center instead of being arrested since it was opened, which was only a couple weeks ago.
MICHAEL KURTH: So, did all of the 14 incidents we’ve read about in the newspaper result in arrests?
WILLIAM SOMMERS: If it appears in the paper, they’ve been arrested.
MICHAEL KURTH: OK, there were 30 “incidents” but only 14 arrests. So when you become aware of a threat against a school it doesn’t automatically result in an arrest?
WILLIAM SOMMERS: No, first there’s an investigation by the Sheriff’s Department but all 14 that the Sheriff’s Office presented to be detained were detained, all of them.
MICHAEL KURTH: That means all of them spent at least one night at the Juvenile Detention Center?
WILLIAM SOMMERS: Yes, that is correct. I think one of them might have been released on their own recognizance but there were some issues with that child. I think 13 out of 14 were detained.
MICHAEL KURTH: Is there a range of time that most are detained and are any still detained?
WILLIAM SOMMERS: I don’t want to be specific, but within three days, they must see a judge and the judge will determine whether that child stays in detention or not. The DA’s office also plays a role … if they are going to accept the charge formally or reduce the charge to something else.
MICHAEL KURTH: What is it like for those held in the detention center?
WILLIAM SOMMERS: You’re talking about a 14-year-old kid that is taken out of their home. Of course we are going to treat that child as if they were our own, but as much as we soften it up, the Detention Center is still a jail. Imagine staying in your bathroom all weekend with the door locked and then you’ll have an idea.
MICHAEL KURTH: Do detainees receive counseling from an agency such as Family and Youth?
WILLIAM SOMMERS: Yes, they are under some mental health treatment and evaluation. We have a doctor and nurse that are on call. We have a nurse that’s there all the time, we have a doctor that’s there, we have psychiatric services, we have a psychologist that comes in, we have a counselor that comes in, and we have one detention counselor. Everything besides our nurse we contract out. We contract any type of medical services you can think of.
SARA PESIC: All of them receive some counseling to deal with their issues, whether it’s in detention, at Family and Youth or at some other agency. I know they have contracts with other agencies for the in-home counseling because Family and Youth doesn’t go to clients’ homes.
MICHAEL KURTH: Sara, I’ve seen statistics that indicate the targets of school shooters are generally other students, not teachers or administrators. Is that consistent with what you are finding here?
SARA PESIC: I have had clients who’ve mentioned they were mad at other students, but I’ve also had clients who were mad at a teacher. It’s not clear-cut. Sometimes the issue is not related to the school at all. In general, the student needs to exert power or control and to make himself or herself feel significant because they’re not getting that outside of school or in their home. So school is just an environment where they can meet one of the basic human needs, which is to feel significant.
MICHAEL KURTH: What’s the family dynamic of kids who make school threats? I once heard someone say that virtually every one of the school shooters came from a fatherless home. Is that true?
TONY MANCUSO: Not really. We are seeing students from a variety of family situations.
MICHAEL KURTH: In Columbine, which is probably the most famous school shooting, it was a group of kids that attacked the school. But I believe most school shootings are lone-wolf attacks. What are you finding in Calcasieu Parish?
TONY MANCUSO: The majority have been students acting alone.
KARL BRUCHHAUS: As far as threats here, it’s almost always a single individual.
MICHAEL KURTH: Has there been an actual school shooting here?
KARL BRUCHHAUS: We had an incident where a gun was discharged, but it appears to have been an accident. Still, the gun should not have been brought to school.
MICHAEL KURTH: School shootings are largely a U.S. phenomenon. Do you think kids today have too much access to guns in America and/or are they trying to emulate the gun violence they see at the movies, on TV, or in the video games they play?
TONY MANCUSO: First, let me say that I’m staunchly pro-second amendment. But parents have to secure their guns and make sure kids don’t have access to them. I do think some young kids are desensitized because of games and TV and violence. Some kids spend hours and hours and hours playing video games on a daily basis.
SARA PESIC: We don’t want to always blame video games but they are a huge part of the problem. Not every child that plays video games is going to end up being violent. Some patterns that I am seeing with my clients are: lower socioeconomic status, lack of education, maybe a parent is incarcerated or maybe there’s history of some drug addiction or some domestic violence. So all of these things in addition to playing the videos games can cause a child to develop certain behaviors and even go as far as making a threat or carrying out a shooting.
MICHAEL KURTH: So you think some of these kids are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality?
SARA PESIC: Absolutely. A person’s brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25. Under the age of 8, they’re extremely impressionable, but they’re spending hours playing video games at age 7, 8 and 9. They’re having trouble distinguishing what the reality is. Again, this is not all of them, so we never have a clear-cut answer, but a lot of them can have that difficulty.
MICHAEL KURTH: Besides video games, kids today are heavy users of social media where there are pictures, language, a lot of things going on and these kids don’t always realize what they are doing and saying is very public. Social media has made it possible for subgroups to get together. That can be good, but it can also be bad … for example, child predators. So kids may be saying things on social media that they don’t really mean.
TONY MANCUSO: They probably don’t realize, either, that law enforcement monitors posts on social media. We have people whose only job is to monitor social media. We don’t need a search warrant because there’s not the expectation of privacy one might have in a telephone conversation. Many times, that’s how we get information before a school day starts. Any time you mention guns on social media, it’s reported, which is great. If people immediately report suspicious activity, we’ll figure out if it’s credible or not.
TONY MANCUSO: I don’t. I think it’s important that we not make everyone aware of every single means we use to keep schools safe because that’s how we keep them safe. But I can tell you and assure you that I, the superintendent and our educators are on the same page in regards to the safety and security of our children.
KARL BRUCHHAUS: I think the thing to understand is that our efforts to keep our schools safe are changing every day as we learn and technology changes.
MICHAEL KURTH: What about the parents? What consequences do they face if their child makes a threat against a school?
TONY MANCUSO: Depending on the circumstances, the parents can be held accountable for the child’s actions. We have had cases where the parents were ultimately found negligent and we had to charge them. So yes, a parent can be held accountable depending on the actions of the child.
MICHAEL KURTH: When it comes to social media, some parents are shocked when they learn what their child has been involved in and who they have been talking to, even in middle school.
TONY MANCUSO: Parents are the first line of defense; they should be the first to recognize a potential problem. This is not just a law enforcement issue, it’s not just a school issue, it’s not just a juvenile justice issue. We all have to come together and be vigilant — from churches to schools to moms and dads to grandparents.
MICHAEL KURTH: But there are a lot of homes today with a single parent or where both parents work and have little time to supervise their children.
TONY MANCUSO: Parents have no choice. They have to supervise their children; it is a societal issue. They have to have the password for your children’s social media and monitor it.
MICHAEL KURTH: As a counselor, Sara, what’s your advice to parents about how they can keep their children out of trouble and help make our schools safer?
SARA PESIC: I totally agree with everything that was just said. Parents have to be involved in their children’s lives and not get defensive if their child is doing something wrong or just not deal with it at all. Parents have to stay informed. I’m not talking about controlling everything a child does, but parents have to know what their child is doing so they can supervise and educate them.
MICHAEL KURTH: Let’s go back to the consequences parents may face if their child is reported for making threats against a school. Are there fines? Are there legal fees or other expenses? What might parents face if they were to get a call from the school saying their son or daughter has been arrested?
TONY MANCUSO: There could be fines and legal fees as well as major inconveniences.
MICHAEL KURTH: If they knew that they could be held responsible for their child’s actions, it might motivate them to more closely monitor their kids.
TONY MANCUSO: I just want to say that we have safe schools. Fourteen arrests may seem like a large number, but we have over 30,000 students in Calcasieu schools. The majority of our kids are good kids and aren’t causing problems.
KARL BRUCHHAUS: I cringe, every time a story comes out about school threats. Everybody wants to know what happened to that kid, but we can’t discuss a child’s situation with the public. Never. Did you expel him? Suspend him? We can’t say.
TONY MANCUSO: We can’t even put the public’s mind at ease and because they are juveniles, tell them it turned out to be nothing.