Chances are, a vague threat scrawled on a school's bathroom wall wouldn't be a serious one, but these days schools treat any and all threats with gravity. No one wants to dismiss one as innocuous and be wrong.
This fall Kentucky schools, along with schools across the country, have had to deal with an unprecedented number of threats.
"Since Oct. 6, when there was a threat sprawled on a bathroom wall at Eastern Kentucky University, there have been 56 threats to Kentucky schools that I'm aware of," said Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety.
"That's messages on bathroom walls, bomb threats left on paper laying in the hallways. Some are coming through social media apps or online or through rumors. Educators are really frustrated with this, knowing a threat's most likely a hoax, but in this day and time you can't ignore them."
The threats have been made in every corner of the state at schools of all levels and sizes. Responses have ranged from lockdowns to evacuations to calling off school for multiple days. There's no cookie-cutter response, Akers said, because every threat and every school is different.
Across the board, however, the threats tend to disrupt learning, breed fear and force schools and communities to expend resources better spent elsewhere.
Akers, who taught for three years, was a principal for 26 and has been in his current position for a decade. He said he's seen plenty of threats, but never at this volume. He knows of one school that had seven threats in one day. To his knowledge, all of the threats have been made by students, and he noticed the number of threats seemed to spike before school holidays like fall break or Thanksgiving.
"People are asking, how's it ever going to be stopped?" Akers said. "My response to that is, once you catch someone like that, really consider prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. We don't want this to become the new normal."
In Kentucky, making a threat against a school or students is considered a felony offense that can carry serious consequences even for a juvenile, especially if that juvenile is tried as an adult.
In addition to pressing criminal charges, Akers likes to remind schools they might have the option of suing threat-makers for restitution. He points to Laurel County, where threats seemed to drop off a few years ago after a judge ordered the parents of the children who had made threats to pay between $5,000 and $10,000 in restitution.
Akers makes a point of not naming which schools have been involved in this "pandemic" of threats, because he doesn't want the perpetrators to get any more attention than they already have.
Some of these kids want to see it in writing, he said, and he doesn't want to give them the satisfaction.
Many area educators are hesitant to talk to the media about the situation for similar reasons, though Akers stressed they are talking about it with one another and with local law enforcement, trying to figure out the best way to prevent threats and how to handle them when they do occur.
Akers' agency is working closely with Kentucky state police to offer training sessions throughout the state for school officials. The sessions they've held so far have been so well attended they have had to limit the number of attendees to two per school district.
Larry Zacheretti, security supervisor for McCracken County Schools and retired Paducah Police officer, did want to talk publicly about the threats. Very serious and potentially life-altering consequences await any student or individual who makes a threat against a school, he said, and that's a message the public needs to hear.
"We've been very fortunate this year that we haven't had any threats at all, and I like to attribute that to the fact that we take them seriously and have pressed charges in the past, and we advertise that fact," Zacheretti said.
Zacheretti echoed Akers in saying that threat-makers need to be punished to the full extent of the law. He also stressed that even the most innocuous of threats should be treated seriously.
Zacheretti watched with the rest of the nation last Tuesday when Los Angeles public schools and New York City public schools had opposite responses to similar email threats. Los Angeles may have erred on the side of caution by closing down its 900 schools, while New York schools kept their doors open after deciding the threat wasn't credible. Los Angeles has been criticized for overreacting, while New York has drawn some criticism for not taking it seriously enough.
"Personally, I would rather be criticized for overreacting than under-reacting any day," Zacharetti said. "You're going to get criticized either way. When it comes down to it, it's about keeping the kids safe. So if there's any question at all, I'm going to err on the side of caution."
Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651.