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When Is Closing a School the Right Choice?

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When Is Closing a School the Right Choice?

AP Photo/Paul Beaty

Over the last week, eight schools in the Chicago area have closed in response to threats. The decisions have no doubt been tough ones to make. Administrators today have to consider threats as having the potential for real violence, even if they’re just simple pranks. The question is, where do you draw the line?

When St. Xavier University closed this weekend, it seemed to start a trend. On Monday morning, someone discovered a threat at Malcolm X College of Chicago. Officials evacuated the school. Later that afternoon, in South West Suburban Burbank, a student at Reavis High School found threatening writing in a bathroom. The school called the police in. Reavis High School Superintendent Jim Steyskal says they didn’t evacuate. Not before checking it out. He’s been an administrator for nearly 30 years.

STEYSKAL: You know, it reminds me, I’m an older guy here, I’ve been around a long time, it reminds me of the 80’s. And the bomb threats. If you recall, the big thing years ago was the bomb threat mentality. It’s the same mentality. Except nowadays, because of what’s happened in Virginia Tech and everywhere else, it’s taken on a different role.

With the help of staff, police and cameras, Reavis High caught the student who wrote the threat in the bathroom. It turned out to be a copycat prank.

SCHACHTER: We see more of them in the spring, we see more of them around the time of final exams, right before vacations...

That’s Jonathan Schachter. He’s a public policy lecturer at Northwestern University, and a former director at Chicago’s 911 center. Schachter says kids have been pulling pranks to get out of school for years. It’s just that now, the stakes are a little higher. But Schachter says schools still have to have a balanced response.

SCHACHTER: We can’t say, ‘Yes, if there’s a threat like this we should always close,’ or ‘If there’s a threat like this we should always stay open no matter what.’ It really has to be addressed on a case by case basis.

In the case of St. Xavier, Schachter says he thinks the authorities had good reason to close the campus. Mario Scalora agrees. He’s a psychologist and threat assessment expert at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He says major universities go through situations like this all the time. As for St. Xavier, Scalora says there could be more to the closing than we know about -- more than just graffiti in a dorm. He says St. Xavier’s president had to consider what state and local authorities were telling her.

SCALORA: And you know, at some point she had to decide to make a call, because it was ultimately coming down on her shoulders, and there is obviously something that those folks said coming around the table that made her think, ‘If I’m going to err, I’m going to err on the side of caution.’

You know that saying, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” Applies here. Scalora has consulted a lot of people about this issue, and says it’s a challenging dillemma. But there are options. For instance, he says at his university, everyone on campus is encouraged to look out for one another.

SCALORA: If you give people a safe way to report things and you approach these things in a very deliberate and reasonable fashion, people are more willing to report things where red flags come up earlier in the process and you have a fighting chance.

Scalora says the frightening shootings we’ve all been hearing about rarely happen without any warning.

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