COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Caleigh Barth (right), a senior at Three Rivers High School, recites her lines for an upcoming social media video that aims to curb school threats during a recording session at Morgan Olson in Sturgis Wednesday, Dec. 22.

'Stop the threats, be the change': Local social media video project aims to stop school threats

STURGIS — Near the end of 2021, a few school districts in St. Joseph County either closed down or locked down because of threats or the possibility of threats made by students, mainly on social media.

While the threats were ultimately deemed by police to not be credible, the number of threats against schools in the state and around the country appear to have increased dramatically since the November school shooting in Oxford, Mich.

One group of local students, teachers, and county officials now hope social media can be the solution to stopping school threats as the calendar turns to 2022.

On Wednesday, Dec. 22, a group of more than a dozen school administrators and students from Three Rivers, Mendon, Sturgis, and Colon schools as well as a couple of county officials recorded a series of TikTok videos that they hope will end school threats in the county.

“The idea is to reduce, and better yet end the school threat issue we have going on,” Ben Karle, department chair of the St. Joseph County ISD’s school social workers, who headed up the project, said. “We're hoping to speak to students on their preferred platform, which is social media, and it's a way to let them know there are a lot of adults that care in the community, as well as fellow students, and to try to keep our schools open. Kids have been through enough school closures in the last year and a half.”

The videos were recorded in a conference room at the Morgan Olson offices in Sturgis with the help of Kenneth Klein, the company’s director of marketing and communications, and Logan Fielding, marketing associate at Morgan Olson. The central theme of the videos is to “stop the threats” and “be the change,” which Karle said is an important one for both students and staff.

“It means we care, and that it's a serious matter. It's not funny. There are a lot of adults that are here to help students that are hurting or in need, and this is a way to be proactive and preventative here by us sending this message out widely,” Karle said.

The filming session lasted for a couple hours, with the participants taking turns getting in front of the camera and recording their lines, which included lines about how “our schools care about you,” “our schools value you,” “enough is enough,” “you are valued,” and that “threats and bullying need to stop.”

Karle said the idea to do the videos came to him just after the shutdown of Three Rivers and White Pigeon schools on Dec. 17. He said he reached out to a number of people and organizations, including the St. Joseph County United Way, who assisted in getting Morgan Olson’s help, to help coordinate the effort.

The videos are expected to be completed in the coming days, with a goal to have them shared out to students, schools and the community by the time students return to school Jan. 3.

St. Joseph County Prosecutor David Marvin recorded one of those videos, alongside Juvenile Court Referee Kevin Kane. While they recorded one with the central message of “being the change,” they also added that those who make threats would be held accountable for their actions.

Marvin said the issue of school threats is a serious one that needs to be addressed.

“There are very serious problems right now that are countrywide, and there are copycat threats. Some of them are real, some of them are copycat, but all of them have to be taken seriously,” Marvin said. “We cannot have a situation where people send their kids to school thinking that everything is fine and we’re watching over our kids, and it’s not safe. It’s very dangerous right now in the world. It’s a very important message, and I’m glad they’re doing it.”

Marvin said he is meeting with superintendents to discuss how his office is going to handle the school threats that have come in, and the ones that have been reported remain under investigation.

One of the superintendents who participated in the project was Leasa Griffith of Mendon Community Schools. While her district did not have any threats made against them prior to winter break, she said the message was “a worthwhile cause.”

“We just want to spread the word that it will be taken seriously if there are any threats made,” Griffith said. “We don’t want anybody to get into trouble that didn’t understand what would happen if they did make a threat of any kind.”

Three Rivers High School Principal Carrie Balk said for her, it was important to get the message out to stop school threats is because school is “supposed to be a safe place” for students.

“A lot of our students have homes that maybe aren’t always safe or have experienced trauma, and I think school is a place where they should feel comfortable and secure,” Balk said. “I think some of the threats that have been going on around the nation and the Oxford shooting has made students feel uneasy, and I don’t think that’s a good thing for students who’re trying to get their education.”

Students who participated in it said it was important for their fellow classmates to hear their perspectives when it came to the issue. Kai Holt, a student at Colon High School, which had to lock down for five hours earlier this month due to a reported threat, said she participated because of how important the situation is for her friends.

“It’s really important, because the safety and mental health of my friends and classmates and everybody at the school is really important,” Holt said. “I hope this will stop the threats. The threats are really serious, and people need to start taking them seriously.”

Caleigh Barth, a senior at Three Rivers High School, said she participated in the project because of how her fellow classmates have felt ever since the Oxford shooting and because of TRHS closing down the Friday before winter vacation.

“Especially with school closing Friday, a lot of the students, especially around me, are feeling a little discomfort and they don’t know how to handle situations like that.” Barth said. “I just want my classmates to feel comfortable and not feel scared to go to school.”

Overall, Karle hopes the videos accomplish many things, one of them being that there are people there for students if they need help.

“I keep saying the word end, because I want it to stop, but I also know that a message is important, but we also need to be continuing to be there in students' lives, be visible, and be consistent with our message,” Karle said.

Those who participated agreed, saying they also hope the videos will get the message across that making school threats is not a good idea, and that students can be part of the solution.

“What I really hope is people understand when you make a threat, it will be taken completely seriously, and you will get in trouble for making that threat, and it’s not really worth it,” Griffith said. “I want people to understand too how terrifying it can be, and we’ve had that a little bit. We don’t want our kids to be terrified, we want them to feel safe at school.”

“I hope the word gets out, and just like there are viral videos and things people like to share online and a lot of times the messages are not good, this is a good message, and I hope this takes off like some of the others,” Marvin said.

“Kids need to know if you’re going to make threats toward the school, it’s going to be taken seriously by the school, the prosecutor’s office,” Balk said. “Students are entitled to an education, but when you cross those lines and you make a threat that essentially keeps other students from getting an education, then it’s going to be dealt with very severely.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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