“Vague TikTok Threat” Highlights Ongoing School Security Pressures

“What a messed up world we’re living in.”

That was the reaction of one Wilton High School parent after receiving the Thursday morning (Dec. 16) email from Superintendent Kevin Smith telling the school community about rumors spreading online about threats targeting schools across the country on Friday, Dec. 17.

Smith said Wilton Police have confirmed the threats are “nonspecific and repeat broad rumors,” and that there is no information to suggest the threats are credible or targeting specific schools, “either in Wilton or anywhere else.”

“A law enforcement agency in Elko County, NV that has been investigating these rumors has suggested that the rumors may have originated initially as a TikTok challenge to skip school on Dec. 17 and then morphed into a vague school threat,” Smith wrote, adding that the district takes the concerns “very seriously” and will continue to monitor.

The TikTok rumors are the latest in a recent string of incidents at schools both locally and across the country putting a spotlight on threats of violence at schools — and, in the case of the fatal shootings two weeks ago at Oxford High School outside of Detroit, very real consequences.

Take, for instance, three separate threats phoned in to Norwalk High School resulting in consecutive, hours-long lock-downs within the space of one week. Or the arrest of a 14-year-old Farmington High School student for bringing a gun to school.

This week was also the ninth anniversary of the mass school shooting at Newtown, CT’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people, including 21 6- and 7-year-old children were killed, only 20 miles from Wilton.

These specific incidents as well as the ongoing stressors of how COVID-19 has impacted the school environment takes it toll on everyone, Smith said, especially students.

“Kids, parents, teachers all have been reporting kind of elevated levels of anxiety and that’s been true all year. So I’m definitely sensitive to that,” he told GOOD Morning Wilton. Thursday’s email follows an earlier message Smith sent to the school community on Dec. 7 about the district’s security procedures and practices. He was motivated to communicate more after the Michigan shooting and the other events in Connecticut.

“It was just so tragically upsetting. It was on my mind and I have close connections to Sandy Hook — I was [superintendent] in Bethel [at the time], and I remember that day like I remember 9/11, so, for me, just personally, I’m tuned in to this time of year.”

After he and district principles heard from some parents as well, he wanted to communicate more about the district’s safety information.

“We do have a lot of really good, strong practices and it might be helpful for people to see the evolution of our work and the comprehensiveness of our approach. My goal was just to help reassure the community that we pay very close attention to the safety of kids in our facilities. And it might be time to just refresh people’s memory about some of the work that’s gone on,” Smith reasoned.

The main elements he outlined in that Dec. 7 email are Emergency Operations; Facility Security and Visitor Access Control; and Safe School Climate programs (excerpted below):

Emergency Operations
  • Specific safety protocols exist for any crisis at a Wilton school, developed in partnership with Wilton’s first responders (police, fire, and EMS) and reviewed “routinely to promote coordination and consistency.”
  • A district emergency operations planning team, made up of school staff and town first responders, meets regularly to review existing procedures, develop new protocols, and train to implement new processes. Team members participate in FEMA training, victim response training, and CPR/First Aid training, and the Safe School Climate Coordinator is part of a regional crisis team
  • School-specific emergency operations teams tailor procedures to the respective school.
  • Plans and protocols are submitted to the CT Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security yearly.
  • The security framework for the district’s protocols is known as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, an “all-hazards” approach with a checklist of recommendations built over several years completed at each building, that includes:
    • keep classroom doors locked
    • add appropriate window coverings
    • strengthen first-floor exterior glass
    • expand camera coverage
    • improve outdoor lighting
    • assign exterior numbers to first floor spaces
    • ensure mass communication ability
    • install emergency alert buttons in strategic locations
    • utilize two-way radios that provide immediate contact with first responders
    • adopt consistent responses to categories of emergencies: lockout, lockdown, evacuate, shelter
Facility Security and Visitor Access Control
  • Entrances to school facilities are locked and visitor access is controlled.
  • Two Wilton police officers serve as full-time School Resource Officers and participate in school day-to-day.
  • Patrol officers regularly cruise the campus and are a visible presence in proximity to the schools. District campus supervisors at the middle and high school assist with student supervision and facility oversight.
  • Several years ago, the district adopted new procedures for screening volunteers working independently with students, expanding beyond screening protocols for volunteers in our school buildings. Any adult volunteers who spend time with students while not in the presence of WPS staff are required to submit to a background check every three years.
Safe School Climate and Student Connectedness
  • The district focuses on promoting a safe, positive school climate and developing student connectedness.
  • School officials recognize that threats to student safety may come from within the school community. Major research suggests that those most at risk for violence are students who may be alienated, disconnected, or marginalized from the school community. As such, the district’s intention is to ensure that every child feels connected to at least one adult in the school building.
  • Students are regularly surveyed about their sense of connectedness and wellbeing. School-based teams analyze survey results and establish goals and action plans.
  • Through the pandemic, these efforts have been enhanced through the use of wellness check-in tools, screening tools and targeted instruction in specific social and emotional learning skills.
  • Early identification for prevention and intervention is key to supporting students who may be at risk.
    • Training mental health staff trained to recognize the signs of students who may be at risk for harming themselves or others.
    • Training all district staff annually in Safe School Climate Training
    • Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR): Grades 6-12 staff are trained in a specific gatekeeper evidence-based protocol for suicide prevention and intervention, called Question, Persuade, and Refer — “three simple steps anyone can learn to help save a life from suicide.” Like CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver, people trained in QPR learn how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade, and refer someone to help (two QPR-training certified staff members, with two more being added this year).
    • The student safety management software Gaggle monitors 24/7 students’ district Google Suite accounts for words, terms or images that may be an indication of a student at risk.
    • An anonymous tipline “Speakup” allows students to anonymously report any behavior of concern (also monitored 24/7 through Gaggle).
    • The district is implementing a screening program for students at the between-school transition years to identify early risk signs for behavioral, social or emotional difficulties.
    • Link Crew and WEB transition programs at Middlebrook and WHS address the transition years when students may be most at risk.
    • Social Emotional Learning Committee developing district program goals and standards, working to align curriculum to ensure a comprehensive approach supporting all students.
    • The district-wide mental health team prioritizes supporting students in need of support and supporting families with appropriate resources.

Smith emphasized how critical every member of the community is in building a culture of safety and helping students feel secure while at school. That includes the visible presence of the School Resource Officer’s police cruiser parked outside; all staff members (administrative, custodial, coaches, etc.), as well as teachers, being part of the connectedness with students; implementation of planned drills and practices; and engaging with the wider community of first responders, town officials and families.

Wilton High School

At Wilton High School, Principal Robert O’Donnell has been communicating with parents about security as well. He followed-up Smith’s email with one of his own on Dec. 9 and then again on the anniversary of the Newtown school shooting, emphasizing the school’s desire to “partner with our parent community” and “create a connected school community where all are valued and respected for individual differences that make our school community stronger.”

“If there is ever anything that you feel I should be aware of in the realm of school safety and security please contact me here at school. We encourage members of the community to err on the side of reporting incidents of potential concern so that we can thoroughly and effectively investigate them,” he wrote.

O’Donnell told GOOD Morning Wilton that when something happens elsewhere, as was the case in Norwalk or Michigan, the school moves quickly to be ready to respond to Wilton students if necessary.

“We gathered together quickly as a team and with [newly-appointed School Resource] Officer [Frank] Razzaia, just to make sure we were on top of things. Then we often will do this, we assigned an administrator to each floor during that next passing time, to be out, to be visible, to be reassuring,” O’Donnell said. “And then we debrief.”

Surprisingly, students didn’t seem to be particularly nervous to learn about what happened in Norwalk. “We really didn’t hear that much — we kind of thought there would be a buzz about it since it was so close to home, but we really did not hear that much. We did have an extra squad car here, just as a police presence and a visible sign of security to the kids,” he added.

O’Donnell pointed out that while much of the discussion around the anxiety of school security and safety is focused on students, he also is concerned about his staff and the toll it takes on them. That was especially the case on the day when GMW spoke with O’Donnell — the anniversary of the Newtown shooting.

“It’s obviously just an extremely tragic anniversary. As much as anything, one of our concerns is we had an admin team meeting today and we talked about the staff members who were impacted, we had some staff members who had direct connections to that. We touched base with them and some of our colleagues up in Newtown, just to say, ‘How are you? Do you need anything?'” he said.

It’s stress both students and teachers carry with them.

“I would not say that we live in constant fear, but when you work in a school, and we don’t want this to be normalized at all, but there’s obviously just been so many incidents over the years that there’s a reality that something could happen. And again the percentages are very, very low, and I recognize that when something occurs, it’s all over the media. But when there are so many things that are happening in what is obviously quite a small state, it certainly makes you wonder and think about it,” O’Donnell said, adding, “It’s just good to not have this be the cause of it, but just to always have our awareness heightened, and to just realize that we want to be prepared that we’re here to keep kids safe.”

The generation of kids in school now have never known a time when there wasn’t a threat of school shootings and random violence. It makes the responsibility even greater, said O’Donnell.

“I’m proud of our school counseling team and our mental health awareness team on just caring so much about the kids and always trying to make sure that they’re okay in these trying times, making connections with these kids and also with their families,” he said.

That may be through occassional outreach or more routine daily check-ins through the Flex Program, which O’Donnell said supports students with more significant social and emotional concerns. There’s a weekly meeting of the advisory program, with one teacher for 10-12 students as another layer sending the message of care. Students also have access to school counselors and social workers, and sometimes a one member from the mental health team will be assigned to a specific student.

“We know the students who are, for lack of a better way of putting it, very much on our radar. Is there an uptick, or are they doing a little bit better? Do, do they need somebody to check in with them? And then assigning a point person or point people to reach out to them, to check-in, to see if they require any further support or resources. In the context of public schools, we’re pretty attentive and have a strong security around the kids we’re aware of,” O’Donnell said.

How can parents help their children cope with the rising anxiety and stress? Superintendent Kevin Smith provided resources in his message, including links to readings that may be helpful.

Additional information can be found on the district’s website.  Anyone who needs further assistance, or has any questions can email Kim Zemo to be connected to appropriate resources. Mental health staff remain available to support students and families in each building.