'This must stop': Two suburban districts take a stand against school threats
"This must stop."
The message stands alone, set apart in its own paragraph, in an open letter sent to members of the Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204 communities by the school districts and their corresponding law enforcement agencies.
The letter calls for an end to safety threats against schools -- and to the unverified sharing of rumored threats on social media.
"This must stop" is the third paragraph of the letter, after school and police officials express their needs -- both to investigate threats as they arise and to start an open dialogue aiming to curtail them.
"What was once viewed as a prank to get a day off from school has now created an ongoing sense of fear within our communities, caused us to divert substantial resources in investigating these threats, and eroded parents' and students' confidence in their schools being safe environments," the letter reads.
Threats aren't isolated to the schools in the Naperville-area districts, which together serve 44,000 students from parts of Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook, Plainfield, Lisle and Woodridge.
They've been made during the past two years alone by students in places such as Algonquin, Beach Park, Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Huntley, Rolling Meadows, South Elgin and Wheaton.
In many cases, threats cause schools to be evacuated or locked down. Emails are sent to parents. Police conduct investigations. State's attorney's offices prosecute suspected offenders, both as juveniles, or, if their ages allow, as adults.
"The topic of school threats has been widely reported in our area lately," the Naperville and Aurora officials said in their letter, which came after two threats were reported in one week early this month at Metea Valley High School and another was made the following week at Waubonsie Valley High School. "Our agencies continue to investigate threats at all levels -- from elementary through high school. This is an unfortunate, yet very real, concern for us all."
Official couldn't specify the number of threats against schools in districts 203 and 204 this year, saying some are dismissed quickly, while others are investigated in depth. Suffice to say, there have been too many, they said.
"You may be wondering what constitutes a threat," the open letter reads, leading into a definition from police:
"A threat is any expression of intent to harm another. Threats can be spoken, written, communicated using technology or expressed in other means, such as gestures or body language. Threats can be made directly to the intended victim, communicated to third parties or expressed in ways ranging from verbal threats on phones, writing on public property, in notes, on social media or over text messaging."
What officials hope students and parents will stop doing is making any future threats worse.
"We strongly encourage parents and students alike to refrain from posting or sharing rumors about threats of violence on social media," the letter said.
Instead, officials encourage parents to fact-check first by calling their child's school or their local police department's nonemergency number.
In the days after the letter went out Dec. 19, school board presidents including Kristin Fitzgerald in District 203 urged parents over winter break to "have a serious discussion with their kids about reporting and verifying threats." Threats are undermining students' sense of safety, Fitzgerald said, and that is why they need to stop.
"That sense of security is fundamental for students to be able to learn," she said.
Sending an open letter was an idea from police and an approach District 204 school board President Mike Raczak said leaders were quick to follow.
"We need to work together if we're going to address the issue, make sure kids are safe," Raczak said.
The letter echoes Raczak's call for this rally against threats to be a team effort.
"We are hopeful that by working together," the letter says, "we can reduce the frequency of threats against our schools, calm general anxiety about school safety and refocus community dialogue on more positive topics."