Threats leave middle schools on edge

Staff photo by Hannah LaClaire A sign posted at Elm Street Middle School encourages students to report suspicious activity.

NASHUA – After several school shootings across the nation in recent years, officials know they must take any threat of violence against students or staff members seriously.

Recently, two Nashua middle schools saw four security threats within the span of one week, district officials said. Of the threats, three came from Elm Street Middle School and the fourth from Pennichuck Middle School.

All four threats were ultimately unsubstantiated, police said. Still, Nashua School District Superintendent Jahmal Mosley said in this new era of hypervigilance and concern, many districts pushing their “If you see something, say something” policies.

“Safety is paramount,” he said.

The first potential threat, according to a letter Elm Street Principal Ian Atwell sent to parents, was from a student repeating song lyrics from a song about the Bubonic Plague (set to the tune of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”) they had learned in social studies.

The song, which had been used as an educational tool, has lyrics such as “Gonna kill you in a few days,” and “you’ll be dead in no time flat, girl,” which, taken out of context, concerned some other students.

“We will be working with our students to reinforce that topics that may be appropriate in certain classes are not appropriate in other settings,” Atwell said.

The police were notified, and through the investigation, it was determined it was not a credible threat.

In this “new environment” in the wake of tragic school shootings, Mosley said, something such as song lyrics may get a “stronger reaction” than they otherwise would.

Just three days after the initial incident, parents reported a second threat to the building, which had been communicated to students and then widely circulated through the Snapchat social media tool, Atwell said. Again, police were called and investigated, eventually finding the threat to be unsubstantiated.

Later the same week, a student allegedly overheard an unfounded rumor concerning a threat to the school. This student then posted that information on social media, causing the post to go viral, Atwell said. Multiple parents called to report the threat. Police investigated and did not find any credible evidence pointing to a security threat.

Confidentiality laws and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibit school officials from publicly sharing student consequences for either incident.

Atwell held office hours for parents and students the next week and worked to develop a message for students focusing on appropriate topics for general discussion, as well as the proper steps for reporting a perceived threat. For example, telling an adult immediately and not posting it on social media.

“We want to give kids the tools to communicate effectively. We don’t want to post on social media and create hysteria. We want to be able to immediately address the threat,” Mosley added.

The threat at Pennichuck was similar in that it also involved social media- an app called Lipsi, which lets the user post anonymous commentary based on location, seemingly similar to Yik Yak, a now shut-down app that was popular in 2013.

Principal Lynne Joseph sent an email to parents after the incident letting them know that a student had come forward after seeing a threat. After police responded, they said it was an isolated incident that lacked credibility. The school is safe, she said, and the staff will always investigate any concerns that are brought to their attention.

“(We would) rather have someone report something that turns out to be nothing than to miss something big,” Mosley said of the multiple reports. “Our kids are safe. We don’t want to leave any stones unturned on that front.”

As always, he stressed, “if you see something, say something.”

Mosley and the rest of the administration members are aware of the “changed environment” in recent months. At the end of the academic year, all staff members will undergo active shooter training led by the police department, he added.

Hannah LaClaire can be reached at 594-1243 or hlaclaire@nashuatelegraph.com.