Schools and authorities in Vantaa are facing a worrying number of bogus threats in schools made by students, which take time and a commitment of resources to respond to.
It wasn’t yet 08:00 on Monday morning when Eastern Uusimaa Police got their first alert of the week. This time the alarm was raised at Martinlaakso School where a 13-year old pupil had threatened classmates by posting a message in a WhatsApp group chat, and mentioned a gun.
Five patrol cars responded immediately to the school, and although there was no actual danger to students, a criminal report has been filed and police have to investigate the circumstances. It could mean they confiscate the teenager’s electronic devices to see if there have been other threats or alarming posts in the past or if this was a one-off incident with no malice intended.
“Student safety is taken very seriously at the school” says Ursula Snellman, Rector at Martinlaakso School.
After Monday’s incident classroom teachers discussed with it with their own students the need for protection and the fact that police had ensured the school was safe.
“The discussion also touched upon emotions. It is quite normal to be upset or scared during and after such events. In this context, the teachers also told students there is a large number of pupil welfare resources available and that everyone can get help if they wish” she tells News Now Finland.
School threats arrived on schedule
This school term, the alarm calls came right on schedule – just as police predicted.
“We figured when the school term started, the first week was only two days. The second week is settling in and students find their position in the school community. And the next week is when the harassment starts and we thought there would be the first threat. And we were right” says Sergeant Riku Aaltonen from Eastern Uusima Police’s Preventive Unit.
“On the last day of the third week the threat came. And they’ve been coming weekly ever since. Already one week we had two threats on the same day” he adds.
Police say social media messaging services are the most common way to send threats, which fall into one of several categories.
They can either come from a student who is being bullied and acting out; from a student who’s doing the bullying and directly threatening someone else; or from students who think they’re playing a funny prank by getting the police to respond to school.
“WhatsApp is quite popular but it can be any social media app where there’s a group, and almost all the schools have some kind of WhatsApp group, and the students get more visibility for their threats” explains Sergeant Aaltonen.
Keeping in mind Finland’s own history of school shootings and violence in classrooms – including the Jokela shooting in 2007 which left eight people dead; and even a sword attack in Kuopio earlier this month which left one woman dead and nine others injured – police can’t be complacent even if they think the ‘threat’ is a joke.
“Every threat we get we have to investigate it thorough, because you never know. You just have to go through the same process every time otherwise if you think this is just a bad joke, then what if it’s the one that’s real?” Sergeant Aaltonen tells News Now Finland.
What happens to the students who make threats?
At the International School of Vantaa staff haven’t yet experienced any sort of threat that’s risen to the level of police involvement, but recognise the issues and try to mitigate against them.
“Social media is a pain from the school’s point of view” says Principal Heikki Hirvonen, who explains that they don’t use WhatsApp groups to communicate at his school, but instead rely on Google Classroom and an online service called Wilma that links the teachers, the students and their parents.
“In these cases I could talk to parents, or have a discussion with parents and the student. And what are the consequences when the students are 12, or 15? There’s a difference and the police would be involved as well” says Hirvonen, who has been working in education for more than 20 years.
“The school can handle certain things, if there’s bullying at the schools there’s tools to handle that. If someone is making a threat we cannot actually know if there’s something behind it or not, and that’s why the police are taking responsibility for that” he says.
Criminal action or counseling needed
The age of criminal liability in Finland is 15 and the approach of the police is to get everyone together in the same room: the student who made the threat, the parents and the principal.
“We try to explain to the youngster that this isn’t a joke. We try to explain to them that it’s always a crime, and if they are over 15 we could send papers to the prosecutor who figures out if it goes to court” explains Sergeant Riku Aaltonen from Eastern Uusimaa Police.
Officials say often when they contact parents they express surprised that their child would be involved in making a threat at school. But sometimes there are underlying problems like bullying the parents are simply not aware of and that’s when counselors or social services could become involved to work with the school to offer support to students who need it.
“When you meet the youngster you can quite easily see this was only a bad joke, or when you talk to him or her you see this kid has problems” says Aaltonen.
“If you don’t get your problems solved, it can end up in a real school shooting.”
This story was updated on 9.10.2019 at 08:45 to reflect new comments provided by the Martinlaakso School Rector.