Was the 'contagion' effect of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting behind recent Hamilton school threats?

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Hamilton schools faced 23 shooting or bombing threats from May 30 to June 17. A month since the last reported threat, behavioural experts say the May 24 Texas, Uvalde, school shooting may have had a 'contagion' effect. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)
Hamilton schools faced 23 shooting or bombing threats from May 30 to June 17. A month since the last reported threat, behavioural experts say the May 24 Texas, Uvalde, school shooting may have had a 'contagion' effect. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)

Hamilton schools faced 23 shooting or bombing threats between late May and mid-June, leading to several charges. But was it a coincidence the incidents in Ontario happened not long after the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas?

Some experts say high-profile cases like the May 24 Uvalde shooting can create a "contagion effect" that triggers other scary acts, and in this case, the rise in school shooting threats in Hamilton.

Sgt. Jason Tadeson, youth services co-ordinator for Hamilton Police Services, said officers charged five people, warned two people and identified three others linked to the school threats in the Ontario city. As well, 13 threats are still under investigation.

Those who have aggressive tendencies tend to look for aggressive cues. - Wendy Craig, Queen's University psychology professor

Tadeson said each case has been investigated separately and there's no concern for public safety at this point.

While he said it's hard to pinpoint what may have caused the string of threats in Hamilton, he pointed to the Uvalde shooting, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, as a potential trigger.

It's unclear if past school shootings have led to similar levels of threats, but Tadeson said: "When there are worldwide events that occur, there is that behavioural contagion."

In Hamilton, there didn't seem to be a pattern to the threats that targeted 19 schools. One school temporarily closed due to the threats. Unrelated shooting threats were also reported in the Greater Toronto Area and Windsor.

'Community of aggressive individuals'

Wendy Craig, a psychology professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said the contagion effect is when a violent event like the Uvalde school shooting provides a "road map" for others.

"There's a lot of press around it ... those who have aggressive tendencies tend to look for aggressive cues," she said.

"Those who are aggressive are more likely to take on these behaviours."

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus, said people involved in threat incidents may likely have been experiencing social isolation and bullying.

He said some can end up connecting online, which can lead them down a dark path.

Submitted by Steve Joordens
Submitted by Steve Joordens

"The internet has really allowed a community for almost anything that you can think of, including people who have these sorts of notions in their mind," he said.

"Often they're drawn to this because of a feeling they may have from being socially isolated; less successful than they would like to in life, they may already feel a bit victimized."

Craig said the string of threats in Hamilton and other Ontario schools after the Texas shooting could indicate there's "a community of aggressive individuals who want to see the impact they can make."

"I don't think it's random," she said.

Joordens said even if it the threats toward the Ontario schools were some kind of prank, it's concerning.

"Maybe this could trigger something like, 'Hey here's a way to get out of our exams,' but man, is that detached from the seriousness of what they're doing," he said.

Tadeson said there's no "cookie-cutter" explanation behind the reason for each threat. There may even have been multiple factors behind each one, he said.

Schools need to review culture: psychologist

Craig said the fact schools faced the threats to begin with may signal they need to pay more attention to the students.

"They need to look at the school climate. Do students feel like they belong? Do they feel like they're cared for? Do they feel like they're included in the environment?" she said.

"This is not going to happen in schools where you feel connected and valued."

Hamilton's public school board said it's always reviewing its approach to safe schools and is "reflecting on ways we can continue to support families."

Hamilton's Catholic school board said it has been "very clear that threats have consequences," and schools will keep communicating to families about the danger of making threats.

Both boards also said they work with police to ensure everyone's safety.

Craig said while it's important to intervene and take action on any threats, one way to address them is to make the students feel included rather than just having them expelled.

"What do we need to put in place to prevent this from happening in our community, and the second thing, how do we react in a way that also supports developing youth who might already feel marginalized?"

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