Parents and students in nearby Albion, Orleans County — where police and school district officials say a school shooting plot last month was averted and three middle school students arrested — hope the district can set the standard for the nation when it comes to averting school shootings.
One of the challenges to understanding how to thwart school attacks is a lack of uniform data on how often these incidents occur and details that could help drive an understanding of how these potential threats can be detected and interrupted.
In the case of Albion, the three teens face charges of second-degree conspiracy to commit murder at their middle school. Police say the boys were in the logistical stages of a plan to kill and injure students and staff with explosives, incendiary devices and firearms, and had discussed their plan on a social media site; and it became known after a student who received a threat told a teacher.
While most state education departments have well-developed plans for responding to school safety crises, the efforts to track and analyze these incidents are inconsistent.
School violence tracking across country
In California, where public schools serve more than 6 million students each day, each school is required to develop and maintain a comprehensive safety plan. The California Department of Education (CDE) provides resources on best practices for preparing for and responding to active shooter situations and their aftermath.
But a spokesperson for the CDE confirmed that the agency does not track violent incidents such as school shootings, threats of violent attacks, or thwarted threats.
In Pennsylvania, the state maintains an extensive tracking system through its Safe Schools program, which captures data on incidents ranging from fighting and bullying to sexual assault and attempted suicide.
A report on the 2018-2019 school year shows that there were 111 bomb threats and 854 terroristic threats in Pennsylvania schools. There were 1,091 incidents where a weapon was detected, occasionally by a scanner or security officer but most often by school staff or a fellow student.
In most other states, information on threats and actual acts of violence on school campuses are captured only as part of a broader effort to track student discipline and alleged criminal activity.
The Texas Education Agency reported 3,442 incidents of a “terroristic threat” during the 2018-19 school year.
In Florida, the Department of Education has a category in its safety incident reporting system called “Major Disruption on campus,” which includes bomb threats, inciting a riot, and initiating a false alarm. They reported 3,357 such incidents during the 2017-18 school year, the most recent period for which they have posted data.
'The reporting is not really accurate'
New York’s education department reported 85 “bomb threats” at schools in New York City and 109 at schools in the rest of the state during the 2017-18 school year. Their report also cited 674 instances of a “false alarm” statewide.
With each state using its own set of categories and definitions, it’s impossible to make meaningful comparisons or draw conclusions about the scope of the problem or the effectiveness of each state’s program for thwarting potential attacks.
And because this data is self-reported, schools are disincentivized to provide an accurate account of the violent acts within their walls: More incidents mean more scrutiny from the state and the public, critics said.
Indeed, a USA TODAY Network review earlier this year found that 15% of the schools in New York state reported they had 10 or fewer safety incidents over the previous six years. About 90 schools reported having no incidents at all.
"The reporting is not really accurate," said Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell, D-Manhattan, who sponsored the Dignity for All Students Act, which passed in 2010 and requires schools to report cases of bullying.
"Schools don’t want to report accurately because they don’t want to be perceived as an unsafe school. On the other hand, if we don’t have accurate data, we don’t know what we need to do to fix it."
The 'Red Flag' law
On Nov. 19, Suffolk County police were able to secure an order that allowed it to remove any weapons from the Long Island home of a student who claimed, "He intended to bring a gun to school and shoot everyone," records showed.
The case was brought under New York's new Red Flag Law that allows school officials or police to request an "extreme risk protection order" from a judge to take weapons from a home where a person is deemed dangerous to themselves and others.
"With this new law, family, household members, school officials and law enforcement are now empowered to prevent gun violence within our homes, schools, and communities," Rebecca Fischer, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said in a statement when the law took effect in August.
Eighteen states now have so-called Red Flag laws that allow police and households to petition a judge to remove weapons from a home where a dangerous person lives.
But now the law is being expanded to scuttle school shootings.
The Red Flag law in New York expands its "extreme risk protection order" to include school officials — who can also petition the court to have guns removed from homes.
Expanding the Red Flag law to school officials — teachers, administrators, guidance counselors — may be the next step for states looking to find new ways to thwart school shooting.
California just added school officials to its Red Flag law, as did Hawaii. according to Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence.
Westchester County District Attorney Anthony Scarpino said teachers, students and administrators might be best able to spot danger among its ranks. Before, they often didn't know where to turn. That has changed with the Red Flag law.
Parents of children that are not their own cannot petition the courts if they suspect another student is acting suspiciously, but they can go to police or school officials with their concerns.
In New York, the Red Flag law has already garnered 170 risk protection orders, with half of those in Suffolk County.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said the county did an extensive outreach to schools and police to encourage them to consider the Red Flag law, and it led to a flood of cases soon after the law was on the books.
She said a good portion of those are school cases, but she didn't have a specific number. Hart said police are told to ask if a school wants to file an order through the police department if a school threat is investigated.
The Red Flag law, she said, is "very vital for us to make sure we are maintaining safety in our schools. It’s a great resource."
Experts said Red Flag laws could be another way to prevent school violence.
A study last year at the University of Indianapolis found the first two states that implemented Red Flag laws, Indiana and Connecticut, saw a demonstrable drop in firearm-related suicides over a 34-year period.
President Donald Trump earlier this year indicated support for Red Flag laws, but it has yet to pass Congress.
Critics of the Red Flag laws said it limits due process: Guns are taken away by a court order and then an appeal needs to be filed.
"The court order authorized by the legislation could be issued without any indication that the person poses an imminent threat to others, and without any evidence that he or she ever committed," the ACLU of Rhode Island said last year in advance of that state's passage of the law.
Includes reporting from Joe Spector of USA TODAY Network