“Do you feel safe at school today?”
Natalya, the 10th grade class president at Franklin High School, hesitated on the phone Friday morning.
“That’s a really hard question to answer,” Natalya said.
On Wednesday, concern mounted over an interaction on social media that named students as targets of a possible shooting, according to screenshots obtained by The Stranger. Due to a credible threat of violence, Seattle Public Schools closed Franklin High School—at least for students.
The district required staff to continue their workday in the building. The building’s internet wasn’t working at the time, which made it difficult for teachers to grade, send emails, and do the tasks they would normally do when not actively working with students. According to teachers, the district told staff that if they did not feel safe, they would have to take personal time off to leave the building.
“From our perspective, it's like, ‘Wait, you're telling us we have to go back to our rooms in a building that's actively under threat, to not really be able to do our jobs, and we can't go work from home like we did all of last year?’” said Caitlin Honig, a social studies teacher and union representative at Franklin High School.
Mai-Khanh Pham, a union representative who also teaches social studies, said Seattle schools, particularly in the South End, have been “rattled” by recent threats of gun violence. In the last month, the Seattle Police Department has investigated at least five other threats of violence to Seattle schools: a threat to Rainier Beach High School that forced the school to shelter in place, an online shooting threat to Whitman Middle School that ended in a 13-year-old’s arrest, another online shooting threat to Ingraham High School that also ended in an arrest, reports of a possible weapon on school grounds at Cascadia Elementary School that forced the school to shelter-in-place, and a shooting near Garfield High School after school hours.
School violence is an issue of national scope. The Educator’s School Safety Network started tracking incidents and threats of violence in schools in 2012. Dr. Amy Klinger, the non-profit's director of programs and an expert in school safety, noted the problem worsens every year.
“People sort of forgot that we were on this upward trajectory with a lot of threats and incidents already prior to the pandemic,” Klinger told The Stranger. “And then we heaped on top of it: the trauma of the pandemic, the isolation, the mental health concerns.”
Klinger said that sending students home and keeping teachers in the building is not unheard of, nor is it wholly ridiculous depending on the situation. She also warned against leaning too heavily on virtual learning when threats of violence occur—the isolation of the virtual learning added to the mental health issues that cause violence.
In the case of Franklin High School, teachers were allowed to go home after a few hours on Wednesday.
A 17-year-old student was arrested in connection with social media threats. Nothing came of the threat, but the way the district handled the potential danger earned swift action from the staff at Franklin High School.
“I couldn’t go back to a normal school day,” Honig said. “I couldn’t go in front of my students and pretend to care about human geography and try to make them care about human geography when I didn't even really care about human geography that day.”
On Thursday, the staff organized a sickout so they could process the stressful situation and strategize a supportive re-entry for students which they felt the district had not done, according to the staff’s statement. Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson said 61 of 120 of classified and certified staff were absent Thursday. The school closed due to staffing shortages.
Both Pham and Honig said they were disappointed by how Robinson and the Seattle Times initially framed the situation.
“It is not our fault that there was no school that day,” Honig said. “It's your fault for not having a plan in place for how to care for us.”
My heart is with our Seattle public high schools. I’ve spoken with students and teachers this week and the hardships they’re experiencing are getting worse every day. They’re facing threats of gun violence, staffing shortages, and a lack of mental health support.
— Girmay Zahilay (@GirmayZahilay) December 17, 2021
Though many teachers did not go to the school Thursday, Honig said they did not take the day off. Honig spent about 10 hours in meetings with other teachers planning for a return to school on Friday. The teachers and administration worked to design a school day that paused curriculum and gave the school community “space to process.” Students started with an hour and a half of advisory followed by a series of 30-minute classes about mental health.
At the beginning of Friday’s school day, Natalya said she looked forward to processing their “shared experience” and building solidarity between students and teachers.
“My biggest takeaway is that we have to demand,” Pham said. “It's not something that district law has given us, we have to do something and demand that the district put resources into South End schools.”
Cleveland High School staff also organized a sickout after two days of threat-induced shelter-in-place lockdowns on Tuesday and Thursday this week. They demanded the district create a proactive plan to keep schools safe from violence and that the district better deal with the trauma of school lockdowns rather than “returning to a regular schedule as if nothing ever happened.”
The threat of violence continued Friday with a TikTok that vaguely threatened schools nationwide. SPS told families in an email that SPD does not consider the TikTok a credible threat.
“We know this—and other recent threats at our schools—adds to the stress and anxiety that our students, families and staff are already experiencing and want to confirm that we take these matters seriously,” read the email from SPS Office of Public Affairs.
As Seattle schools continue to grapple with how to deal with an increasingly threatened learning environment, Klinger said it is important that all stakeholders be involved in decisions around prevention and planning. She said preventing violence is “not rocket science.” She suggested training teachers, establishing threat assessment teams to identify individuals of concern, conducting vulnerability assessments to identify potential problems within the school in the way the school operates, and improving the climate and culture of a school so students will feel comfortable disclosing what they know. But to Klinger, preventing gun violence will be the product of preventing smaller, more common dangers.
“If we focus on preventing violence, we’re going to do a better job of keeping kids safe from the more common threats—suicide, overdose, fights, whatever it is—we're also going to prevent the most horrific threats like school shootings. So it's a win-win,” she said.