It’s been nearly three weeks since a man opened fire on students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and catapulting the nation—and its press corps—into yet another devastating news cycle dominated by the aftermath of a mass shooting. National media has heavily covered the tragedy, offering significant airtime and column inches to stories detailing the shooting, the response from law enforcement, tributes to the victims, and dispatches on the recovery of the survivors. Most of all, news organizations have spent significant time covering the student-led activism that blossomed in Parkland and quickly spread across the country, fueled by the distressing sentiment that mass shootings on school campuses have only increased in frequency.
Less prominent has been national attention to local reports on the dozens of similar shooting and bomb threats that have occured in school districts around the nation in the days since Parkland. For local reporters working the education beat, local threats have dominated their attention the past few weeks, even if they’ve only been a blip on the national radar—and they have transformed the beat into a hybrid, as much about education as politics, crime, or health. The absence of a more diverse look at the sprawl of post-Parkland threats, and the way it is shifting education coverage, is at best a missed opportunity to contextualize the reach of this tragedy.
Schools in Omaha, Nebraska have received more than 30 threats since Parkland, resulting in one thwarted attack and at least three arrests. An education reporter in Alabama has tracked at least 37 threats across that state since February 14. A student in Maryland brought a gun to school the day after the shooting in Florida. A 16-year-old was arrested in New Hampshire during that time period, after making threats against a technical school. At a different high school in New Hampshire, officials shut the campus down for a day while they investigated a threat etched into a cafeteria table. In Collier County, Florida, 27 school threats have being investigated as of February 26. A middle schooler and a high schooler in Charlotte were arrested last week for making threats. Districts around Atlanta have investigated dozens of threats, including one where a student was seen cocking a gun on Snapchat (he got in-school suspension), resulting in two arrests. Three arrests were made in the Sacramento area just yesterday; one of those students was found in possession of an AR-15 rifle.
Several national news organizations—particularly the Associated Press—have run stories that tally similar threats and arrests in places like Maryland, Minnesota, and Virginia. Others ran stories about heightened public sensitivities following the Florida tragedy, leading to an uptick in reports of threats, false alarms, and the risk of copycats. But buried under the weight of an editorial calendar saturated by Parkland and other news of the day, it’s the local press corps, not the national one, that is best-equipped to illustrate what is actually changing in schools, and how those changes are influencing a generation of students. Education journalists, notoriously overburdened by large coverage areas and fewer resources than reporters on other beats, have found themselves suddenly at the helm of what has become a high-profile, rapidly evolving terrain.
It’s the local press corps, not the national one, that is best-equipped to illustrate what is actually changing in schools, and how those changes are influencing a generation of students.
“Our crime reporters were sent to Parkland for a week,” says Annika Hammerschlag, the sole education reporter at the Naples Daily News in Florida, explaining how her newsroom has coped in the aftermath of the shooting. “You have this strong intersection of crime and the education beat, and since they were in Parkland, I took over” writing short briefs and roundups about threats against schools and any resulting arrests after investigations. “Once they got back, they started doing the briefs and I would go back and provide more details from the sheriff’s office. I overlap a lot with other reporters.”
Before Parkland, Hammerschlag, who has worked at the southwest Florida newspaper for just under two years, rarely reported on credible threats to schools.
“[After] Parkland happened, every single day I came into the office there were more and more reports of threats to schools,” she says. “Kids were arrested, bringing knives and hit lists to class. Kids being taken into protective custody. It was insane.” Hammerschlag says she has shared contacts with crime reporters unfamiliar with sources on the school board, or the superintendent’s office—and they’ve helped her reach law enforcement officials she rarely interacts with as part of her typical coverage.
Local education reporters are immersed in the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the sprawling bureaucracies that so often occupy school districts, and that expertise is a big asset. Trisha Powell Crain, a statewide education reporter for AL.com, is tracking threats made in districts across the state in a spreadsheet. As national coverage spotlights political debates on gun control, and propositions such as arming teachers and installing school metal detectors, it’s local reporters who are best suited to provide context that a national outlet would likely miss. Powell Crain, for example, can recount the experience of a county in Alabama that created an armed, volunteer security force for schools five years ago. She can also discuss the relative merits of school metal detectors, and points out that they have much to do with the differing architectural designs of schools in different regions of the country. Russellville schools, in northern Alabama, are outdoor, college-style campuses ill-suited for metal detectors, she says, unlike schools in the Northeast, which typically have a limited number of entrances and exits.
At some newspapers, policies that govern which threats get media coverage are shifting as concerns emerge over possible copycat threats, as well as the risk of excessive media coverage of shootings causing psychological harm to students.
At the Post Register in eastern Idaho, threats against schools haven’t typically been reported unless there was some tangible consequence such as a school evacuation or arrest. But Nathan Brown, who works as an education reporter at the paper, says since last month’s Florida shooting, the newsroom has been reevaluating that policy. “After Parkland, we started getting so many [reports of school threats] that it kind of became a story in and of itself,” he says. And, as is true of so many stories, a dearth of local reporters contributes to holes in coverage at the national level.
“A lot of the national coverage I’ve seen has been focused on student activism, which is a major and interesting part [of the story], but at same time, it doesn’t really tell you what is happening in the buildings,” Brown says. “This happens with pretty much every major story and is a symptom of the fact that local newspapers that cover local and state government have fewer reporters doing it. If you had more reporters, then more of that perspective would be making it into the national conversation.”
Local education reporters are immersed in the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the sprawling bureaucracies that so often occupy school districts, and that expertise is a big asset.
As the media continues to tackle this important, ongoing story, education reporters have a few tips for those of us new to the beat. After the Parkland story broke, Powell Crain, who specializes in education data, went looking for national numbers that detailed which schools have police officers versus school resource officers, a sort of joint security guard and counselor, sometimes armed, and assigned exclusively to schools. She couldn’t find any organization tracking those numbers nationally, so she dug into federal civil rights data—a body of information familiar to most education reporters—and found several states with districts that had neither. This kind of instinct enrichens coverage.
Hammerschlag’s advice is to pay attention to levels of absenteeism as reports of threats continue to roll in, since they can serve as additional means of measuring the impact such threats have on kids’ education. (The Monday after the Parkland shooting, Hammerschlag requested data from her district that showed dips in attendance by the thousands, possibly due to fear as a result of threats on social media—though many students may have been out because of President’s Day.)
She also suggests reporting on what parents can do if they think their own child might pose a threat. “There’s a lot of attention about the victims and parents,” she says, “but what about the parents who think their kids might be the next shooter? What do you do? That’s a really important topic.”
And, as with so many stories, writing a follow-up is crucial.
“It’s important to include the consequences of making threats,” says Hammerschlag. “It’s so easy to just say, this kid made a threat, they found an AR-15, and leave it at that. But follow up and see how [they] were they handled by the sheriff’s office and the school, and talk to experts about how they should handle them. Hold these institutions accountable and make sure they’re doing the right thing.”
TOP IMAGE: Mourners at Newtown High School hold a vigil on February 23, 2018 in Newtown, Connecticut, for the victims of the Florida school shooting. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)