ITHACA, N.Y.—School safety is a constant concern for parents, kids, teachers and school leaders, with an awareness that has been reinforced over and over again that a slow or lackluster response to signals can not be the norm. Luckily, any recent threats made against local schools have either been interrupted or not come to fruition.
But one situation that unfolded in late October has seemed to shake confidence in whether or not the Ithaca City School District has a structured protocol to respond to such situations and inform law enforcement once they are made aware of a threat.
The incident took place on a school bus around 4 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 28, involving a student yelling at two other students, a bus driver and a bus aide that they were going to kill them. The student then said they were going to retrieve a gun and shoot everyone on the bus on the following Monday. While kids and teenagers are prone to outlandish statements in moments of pique, this particular threat was clearly jarring to those who witnessed it, with one student reporting that they were scared to get on the bus the following Monday for fear of what would happen.
It has also generated grave concern over how the district handles such matters, culminating in district officials being subpoenaed to appear in New York State Supreme Court to explain their response in an upcoming court session. An extreme risk protection order (ERPO) has been signed as of Oct. 30 and those proceedings continue while the student who made the threats is also facing a felony charge for making a terroristic threat. The Ithaca Voice is not naming the student because of their age.
Police reports from the incident show that the student claimed to have a Glock 17 handgun at their house during the school bus rant, which the student was threatening to use. When the student’s room was searched, they told police that they had formerly kept a Glock 17 in a heating vent in their bedroom, having received it “from people” they know. The student said they had thrown the gun into a river and no longer had it. Police searched the residence and found no firearms, and it is unclear if the student ever actually had a gun.
The student’s mother acknowledges in the police reports that the student has prior mental health issues and a history of lashing out in anger, and that she was “waiting for something like this to happen.” The bus driver and bus aide both said they were glad something was getting done before the issue got worse.
Though police reports show the school district was notified of the incident by both the bus driver and the bus aide right after it happened, law enforcement wasn’t told until Saturday evening, about 24 hours afterwards. Still, that report wasn’t made by the school district, but instead by a parent of one of the kids who was on the school bus, who heard about it from their child.
The Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office responded to the parent’s report, since the students both live outside of Ithaca, and attempted to report the matter to the district and to gather information on the student who had made the threats and make contact with their family. The reports state that attempts to contact Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown were unsuccessful, though Transportation Director Elizabeth Fox then reached out to the police regarding the incident to help with additional information. The police report states that Fox asked if she should have reported the threat to police; a sheriff’s deputy told her “due to the nature of the threats that she absolutely should have made a police report.”
“From the investigatory report, it appears [the Transportation Director] took an internal report from the bus driver and aide, so I can only assume that it was pushed through school channels,” said Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne in an interview with The Ithaca Voice. “If it went no further than that, I would attribute it to the policy, training, and culture of the school administration. We received our first notification of this incident on [Oct. 29] at 4:31 PM from the parent of a student who was victimized by this. If not for this report, we probably never would have heard about it. Shortly thereafter, the responding deputy attempted to contact Luvelle Brown, left a voicemail message, and did not hear back.”
Osborne said other districts have reported threats when they occurred, pointing to several in the Lansing Central School District earlier this year, though he acknowledged that if something happens inside the parts of the school district that are within the City of Ithaca it would be reported to Ithaca Police Department instead of his office. IPD Acting Chief John Joly did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The district’s response has rankled State Supreme Court Judge Elizabeth Aherne, who is presiding over the criminal proceedings against the student. At a hearing last week, District Attorney Matt Van Houten told Aherne that he had reached out to Brown regarding the threat and wanted to examine the district’s policies and protocols surrounding such incidents. He said Brown told him to talk to the district’s lawyer, Kate Reid of Syracuse-based law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King, who then insisted to the district attorney that he did not have jurisdiction over the matter, according to Van Houten.
Aherne emphasized the precariousness of not responding to threats immediately and potentially ignoring indicators, citing mass shooting incidents in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas from earlier this year. It’s fortunate that this particular threat didn’t result in any further incidents, Aherne said, but the district’s response or lack thereof clearly struck a disturbing chord with her. As part of the extreme risk protection order proceedings that are accompanying the criminal case, Aherne called for Van Houten to send subpoenas to compel Brown to appear in court. She said if Brown declined to do so she would hold them in contempt.
Requests for comment sent to Brown and Reid, the district’s general counsel, were not answered. It is unclear what the district’s official protocol is for response to school shooting threats, or if one exists. In a note sent to parents this week following a different situation, an altercation between a caregiver and a bus driver on a bus, the district stated that it views the school bus setting as equal to the classroom in terms of safety.
“The ICSD treats the school bus as an extension of the classroom and the school day,” read the note, sent on the evening of Monday, Nov. 21. “We want the school bus to be a safe environment for all students and to make that possible it’s imperative that caregivers do not board the bus.”
Van Houten voiced his position on the matter as well, lamenting the lack of prompt response.
“When a threat of gun violence is made in a school setting, there is no excuse for the school district not to immediately alert law enforcement,” Van Houten said in a statement to The Ithaca Voice. “School officials should not be the ones who determine whether a threat is credible. This should be basic protocol for school districts. My position is that we all need to use common sense and work together to ensure that our children are safe and to minimize the risk that a catastrophic event happens in our school systems.”