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School safety threats triggered thousands of absences in Texas last year

More than 100 schools reported big drops in attendance to the Texas Education Agency.

TEXAS, USA — School safety threats like the active shooter scare at Heights High School Tuesday can have repercussions that disrupt learning and threaten funding to Texas public schools.

Thousands of parents at more than 100 schools across the state kept their children home last school year, according to a KHOU 11 analysis of Texas Education Agency data. The high absence rates followed a variety of threats ranging from physical attacks on campus, hoax phone calls and social media scares.

At O’Donnell Middle School in Alief ISD in March, an Instagram post circulated with a warning to students.

“U betta duck cause I’m blowing all yall mtf heads off,” according to a photo the district submitted to TEA. A

Another post read, “y’all playing know till y’all see them 42 rounds going threw y’all homies chest’s … see all u Houston [expletive] that go to odms.”

In a letter to parents, the school’s principal said a thorough investigation concluded the threat was not credible and the responsible individuals would be disciplined. 

But the incident still leaves some with anxiety and fear.

“It’s scary, it’s absolutely scary,” said parent Saj Habeeb as she waited to pick up her child after school Tuesday.

“What can we do? What can we do with our kids right now,” added parent Anarisha Bush.

What parents did at 30 Texas districts last year was take their kids out of school.  Twenty-six of those districts reported absence rates at schools from 13% to 77% due to safety threats and concerns. After fights broke out in April at Kingwood Park High School in Humble ISD, only 30% of students showed up the following day.

Threats even shut down entire schools at four districts last year. Those include Uvalde ISD after the Robb Elementary school shooting and three others -- Frisco ISD, Natalia ISD and Yes Prep Public Schools, where a gunman shot the Southwest campus principal last October.

RELATED: 'It’s traumatic' | Looking at the impact of the YES Prep Southwest school shooting on students, administrators

But it’s not just physical attacks that have repercussions. Threats can come from anywhere.

“Somebody in another country from across the Atlantic can disrupt our school,” said Dr. Jeff Pack, deputy superintendent for educational services at Dickinson ISD.

Pack said a teenager from the United Kingdom targeted Dickinson High School in April with a hoax phone call claiming that someone was in the bathroom with a gun. The next day, nearly half the students on campus were absent. That school usually has a 90% attendance rate on any given day.

 “And so it just completely impacts the learning where really no teaching or learning can happen on a day like that,” Pack said.

In addition to learning disruptions, high absences can mean less money for public schools in Texas because they are funded by the number of kids in the classroom on a given day.

The 30 districts that reported low attendance to the TEA last school year applied for waivers to exclude the high absence and missed school days. Without the waiver, Dickinson ISD would have lost approximately $90,000 in state funding the day of its attendance drop.

Even fear from indirect threats triggered high absenteeism. Five Texas school districts saw an attendance drop after the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, despite receiving no additional threats to their own schools. Three districts reported low attendance after TikTok rumors spread of an “American school shooting day” last December.

“It is a distraction and a disruption if they’re not in the classroom because they’re going to be behind no matter what,” said Art Del Barrio, director of communication for Pasadena ISD.

After a string of threats last school year, the Pasadena district launched “digital citizen week,” a safety campaign that included an edgy public service video of a student-led down a school hallway in handcuffs after making an online school threat. The voiceover warns, “I thought I wouldn’t get caught. I thought wrong.”

“The message is, ‘don’t do it,’ you’re going to get in some trouble,” Del Barrio said.

Del Barrio said since distributing the video, threats have gone down.

 “A student with a prank, there’s consequences, and those consequences can be jail time,” he said.

As for the false alarm at Heights High School that resulted in an evacuation and law enforcement sweep of the building, the HISD press office said it was still researching Wednesday’s attendance rate on campus.

Jeremy Rogalski on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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