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Experts, officials explain psychology behind threats of school violence

SPRINGETTSBURY TWP., Pa. - One question that often comes up when a threat of a violent incident is made at a school is what prompts the perpetrator to make the threat.

After more than a dozen threats against schools in central Pennsylvania, it's a question that does not have an easy answer.

"There's various possibilities for people's motivation for engaging in this kind of dangerous and destructive behavior that's really interfering with people's lives and their sense of safety," said Dr. Chris Petersen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Penn State Health.

Those various possibilities can range from wanting to gain notoriety in school, trying to avoid work, like a test, or a response to bullying.

"The first deterrent for school violence is the relationship between students and the adults in that school, and we hear far more often when we have to be actively engaged in what our 'look-fors' are by engaging kids and engaging communities," said Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.

Threats can also cause trauma for students at the threatened schools. Petersen said he has spoken to young people this week feeling anxious about threats being made at their schools as well as whether a shooting or other violence can happen at their school.

"Reassure children that they are safe, especially younger children, that don't understand that this is something that happened hundreds of miles away and that they're safe that they're not in danger, that their teachers and law enforcement are there to protect them that they're going to be okay," Petersen said.

Another line of thought is that students who make the threats do not fully comprehend the consequences of their actions, because many times, the suspect making the threat is not identified publicly due to privacy standards for juveniles, leading them to believe they can get away with it, Petersen said.

In any event, experts and officials urge strong communication between school staff, parents, and their children.

"Anytime a student shares a concern about fitting in, being bullied, a concern about safety, security, they should absolutely have access to a caring adult in that school," Rivera said.