PETERBOROUGH — On a mid-December afternoon, Mandy Hibbert sat in front of a computer in a high-ceilinged industrial space, looking over a template that showed nine round Christmas ornaments.
“It’s just like when you send something to a printer from a computer,” she said — except in this case, the file instructed a nearby laser to precisely cut and engrave on a 12-by-24-inch sheet of wood.
Thirty-seven minutes after Hibbert hit send, the machine had carved the wood into a set of circular shapes about 3½ inches in diameter, with negative space cut away to form the year “2021” framed by two half-snowflakes.
Hibbert, an 8th-grade special-education teacher in Weare, had set the machine to engrave the name of a different student on each ornament.
“I always like to do a little something at Christmastime,” she said.
As the holiday season got underway in the Monadnock Region, some local gift-givers like Hibbert skipped the stores and headed instead to the area’s makerspaces — facilities with a variety of tools, machines and materials that enable people to, well, make things.
In interviews, locals who use makerspaces said creating gifts by hand can be more rewarding and personal.
“They’re thrilled to be making stuff by hand and learning some things, and just love the idea of being able to make gifts for family and friends,” said Gail Grycel, a board member and curriculum coordinator at HatchSpace in Brattleboro who also teaches courses there.
The area has a number of makerspaces, including MAxT Makerspace in Peterborough, where Hibbert was making ornaments; HatchSpace; and the Kingsbury Makerspace at the Keene Public Library. (The library also has gift-wrapping materials, making it a handy one-stop shop.)
HatchSpace held multiple gift-making classes this month, and Grycel said they proved popular.
“People flocked to them,” she said. “We put something up on the website, and within like three days it was filled.”
Makerspaces are a helpful resource for DIYers, she said, because they provide access to various tools and guidance about how to use them. There’s also a sense of community from being around others who are creating.
Grycel is a cabinet maker, but took part in a recent workshop about how to turn gifts on a lathe, making small items like hand-crafted bottle-stoppers. She was planning to travel south around the holidays and stay with friends. “I was thinking it’d be nice to bring some handmade gifts with me as a thank you,” she said.
Other classes focused on making gift boxes and picture frames. Grycel taught a workshop on how to make a tile-top charcuterie board with a wood frame.
Supply-chain issues that have made it harder to find some products on shelves may have added to the appeal of making gifts this year, she noted.
“I think people like the idea of handmade gifts,” she said. “They’re looking for something to do right now that feels safe to them. It’s local, it’s something that they can do with their hands.”
Hibbert joined the MAxT Makerspace in August, but she isn’t new to creating. In the past few years, she said, she’s made earrings and other objects to sell at markets.
In years past, she’s made her students ornaments out of vinyl. But using a laser cutter and engraver allows for more intricate designs, she said.
“I’ve had my eye on a laser for a long time, but they’re so expensive,” she said. A lighter-duty model for use at home would have run $4,000 to $5,000, she said, and the one at the makerspace — a Zing Laser Machine by the company Epilog — even more. “But I pay $40 a month and I come use this one,” she said.
Laser cutting entails a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Once the material was in the machine and it started working on the design, there wasn’t much for Hibbert to do.
“I usually have my iPad going and I watch a movie,” she said. “If I have other stuff to create I’ll create things while it’s on there. Bring school work and work on other stuff while I’m sitting. But it’s a lot of downtime while it’s working.”
Inside the machine, the laser danced over the wood’s surface, engraving children’s names and cutting out detailed patterns. After it was done, Hibbert pulled the wood out and popped out the finished ornaments — a back and front for each one. She planned to stain the fronts, paint the backs, glue them together and use polyurethane to add shine.
Learning to use the laser involved some trial and error at first, but she’s mostly gotten the hang of it, she said. “Still learning a little each time.”
Across the region in Keene, Colleen Swider was looking for a unique, meaningful gift for her daughter, a nurse practitioner in the emergency department at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“She’s working with COVID patients, and so she doesn’t really need material things,” Swider said. “But I wanted to give her a little lift, because it’s been so stressful, with her working with these dying people.”
Swider, of Keene, works as an outreach librarian at the Keene Public Library, and turned to its Kingsbury Makerspace. She decided to engrave a set of four stemless wine glasses. Each would have a different part of “If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking,” an Emily Dickinson poem about helping others.
New to engraving, Swider bought eight glasses at Homegoods, so she had room for error. She used a computer program to lay out the images she wanted — text, plus a fern — then figured out how to put the glass in place, where on its surface the design would go and what settings to use to get the engraving to look as she wanted.
It took a little time to get the hang of it, she said.
“My first mistake was I took it out of the machine and I started to brush away the dust with my fingers — not realizing it was glass dust,” she recalled. “So that was a learning curve I picked up pretty fast.”
But she said she was happy with the experience and the results. She encouraged others to use the makerspace’s equipment and knowledgeable staff.
“I definitely am gonna do this again,” Swider said. “I definitely am. Because I have two other daughters.”
Nine days after the mass shooting at Michigan’s Oxford High School, a disturbing message on social media shook a tiny Virginia town. A 15-year-old boy wrote of “shooting up the school tomorrow,” police say, apparently referring to the high school he attended — spurring worried classmates to report the message to Manassas Park City Schools administrators.
School officials contacted the police, setting in motion a full-scale investigation, and the school system decided on a fairly drastic step — closing all campuses, not just the targeted school, for all of its 3,500 students the next day.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we switched all schools to virtual learning,” said schools spokeswoman Kara Grasser. “The immediate information we received was not specific. ... We are a very small school system with only four schools.”
It was one among hundreds of examples of school systems grappling with how to respond to vague threats afloat on social media in the wake of the tragedy at Oxford High, which left four dead and seven seriously injured. These kinds of disturbing messages are spiking nationwide: At least 60 schools in Michigan closed this month in the wake of the Oxford shooting, as did districts in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And in a “challenge” last week that swept the social network TikTok, students promoted school shootings to take place on Dec. 17 — for many, the last day of class before winter break. Schools from Washington, D.C., to California closed for the day or added police.
More than 150 threats surfaced nationwide in just the week after Oxford, said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and a co-founder of the Violence Project. By comparison, Densley, who tracks news reports, recorded 151 school threats for the entire month of September this year — itself a fivefold increase over the number seen in a typical September, he said.
Every threat sets off alarm bells, putting staffers, parents and students on edge — and forcing administrators to make a choice. Should they close schools, an option that is more attractive in a post-pandemic world in which many students can learn from home? Or should they take a risk in an effort to minimize learning disruption? Assessing the danger of each threat is not always obvious.
For Jason Enix, superintendent of the Reading Community City School District just outside Cincinnati, the decision was clear. When a social media post surfaced earlier this month promising a student was going to “shoot up the school,” Enix opted to have students learn virtually the next day. “It was an easy call to make,” he said. “We would make that call every single time.”
But when Daniel McGarry, superintendent of the Upper Darby School District in Pennsylvania, faced a similar situation in early December, before the Oxford attack, he kept students learning in a “lock-in” scenario, under which teachers continue teaching but nobody is allowed to leave their classroom. “Our last resort is to close schools,” McGarry said.
Experts are similarly conflicted — emphasizing the need to err on the side of caution but warning of possible downsides.
“I think we have to take every single threat very seriously right now — it doesn’t matter how it might seem innocuous,” said Laurel Thompson, who is on the board of the School Social Work Association of America and was involved in the response to the 2018 shooting at Parkland High School in Florida. “We never know which one is going to be the one. We never want to make a mistake.”
Amy Klinger, founder and director of programs for the Educator’s School Safety Network, commended schools for taking threats seriously. But she said she would like to see fewer campus shutdowns, because a return to virtual learning can cause trauma and anxiety for students who suffered in that environment during the pandemic. And, she warned, school closures could lead to even more threats surfacing on social media.
“A kid could think, ‘I made a threat and it worked, we don’t have school, so I’m going to do that again,’ ” Klinger said. “And copycats create copycats and you get into this cycle of threat closure, threat closure, threat closure, so it’s very difficult.”
The threats run the gamut.
In Virginia’s Chesterfield County, students began sharing an Instagram post in early December that promised a “school riot” the next day, slated to take place during third period. Ultimately deemed not credible by authorities, the threat nonetheless led school officials to request greater police presence at their campuses and spurred several principals to call or write letters to families.
In New Haven, Conn., a high school closed early on Dec. 6 when a 911 caller warned that someone was approaching the campus with a gun. Police say the girl who made the call admitted lying, was arrested and is now facing felony charges.
And when ominous rumors spread on TikTok of a possible day of shootings nationwide this past Friday, administrators struggled to understand how real they were. In Maryland’s Howard County, for instance, they wrote a message to families of “a new TikTok challenge encouraging students to make school shooting threats to schools” and asked parents to urge their children not to participate.
“At this point, there are no credible threats,” the message said. “However, even hoax threats create fear and cause disruption to the school community.”
McGarry, the Pennsylvania superintendent, said it has become enormously difficult to tell real promises of violence from false ones. He said his staff has recently had to work after hours, on weekends and through holidays to help track down threats.
“You can get a picture of a picture sent out on social media,” McGarry said. “We are seeing fake accounts, dummy accounts, fake threats.”
For example, McGarry said, an Upper Darby student showed up to the main office in early December with a picture of what they said looked like another student in one of the district’s high schools holding a shotgun. Someone had messaged the student the image, terrifying the student into believing someone was coming to shoot them, McGarry said.
School officials who examined the picture did not recognize him. And the weapon he was holding looked more like a BB gun, McGarry said. Nonetheless the school system called the police, went into a partial lockdown, alerted parents and designated a team of staffers to help law enforcement uncover the truth.
McGarry said the photo turned out to be a picture of “a kid from another community somewhere else,” with no ties to Upper Darby, holding a pellet gun. And police determined the person who sent the message was not an Upper Darby student.
Thompson, of the School Social Work Association, said some teens make school threats out of a desire to mimic tragedies they have seen on the news. But, she said, other threats stem from genuine pain — and represent yet another lingering legacy of the pandemic, which has left children across the country scarred by personal tragedy, economic uncertainty, the sudden shuttering of desperately needed support systems or all three.
“For many students, their mental health situation — unrecognized, untreated — might turn to violence as a way for them to express themselves,” Thompson said.
Of course, some threats are not hoaxes. And some threats, even if impossible to carry out, have very real roots in student distress.
In Virginia’s Manassas Park, Grasser said that school officials worked in tandem with police throughout the night to track down the student who posted the threat, relying on Instagram accounts and Internet protocol (IP) addresses. Just after midnight, Manassas Park police identified the teen and took him and his parents to police headquarters, authorities said.
Police then searched the family’s home, with the cooperation of the teen’s parents, and found no firearms. Police arrested and charged the 15-year-old last week, placing him in custody at the Prince William County Juvenile Detention Center.
As a flood of threats continue to inundate schools, some are trying to develop longer-term solutions.
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, put forward a bill last week that would add an extra billion dollars per year in state funding for school support personnel such as nurses. About $50 million of that money would specifically go to mental health personnel, school social workers and counselors, McClellan said in an interview.
She is aiming to reduce the ratios of students to mental health staffers — advocating to have one school counselor for every 250 students at every Virginia school campus, for example. McClellan said that she plans to introduce the bill when the Senate goes into session on Jan. 12 and that she is hopeful it will receive bipartisan support.
“We’re seeing a spike in school threats on top of a spike in trauma [that] these kids are carrying from last year that has not been addressed,” McClellan said. “There’s been so much stress on these kids... . We owe it to our kids and our communities to meet their needs.”
In the meantime, though, school officials continue to face fast-developing and swiftly changing crises, forcing them to make quick judgment calls in situations in which there are few if any right answers.
Wendell Hissrich, public safety director for the city of Pittsburgh, said nine schools within the city limits and seven more in suburban areas received at least one threat, typically through social media, in the weeks before and after the Oxford shooting. Officials often opted to cancel classes for the day in the face of those threats, he said.
“That’s a little easier in this day and age,” he said. “They have the mechanism to learn from home. Years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
In the Reading district in Ohio in mid-November, “a trickle, then a flood” of reports came into the district about a social media post warning of violence at school, Enix said.
The post declared: “Everyone going to Reading school tomorrow, please I beg you don’t go to school tomorrow, there is a risk that one of the students will shoot up the school tomorrow just take precaution and DO NOT GO this is important.”
Police immediately launched an investigation and deemed it a credible threat, Enix said. By 9 p.m., the district had decided to close schools the next day. Police arrested a student later that evening.
Enix said the district regularly runs tabletop exercises and drills to prepare for situations like this. He said he thinks his team would have handled it exactly the same way even if the Oxford shooting was not fresh in people’s memories. It wasn’t “a hard decision,” he said, “because we’ve talked about these things before.”
“The truth is,” Enix added, “if we hadn’t closed school, I’m not sure how many students or staff would have been here that day.”
It’s no secret that with all the holly, jolly feelings of the holiday season also come those of stress, anxiety and depression.
And as the Monadnock Region approaches its second COVID-19 Christmas, local mental health providers say it’s important to find moments for yourself.
“There is a lot of pressure on people, and there’s this illusion that the holidays are the happiest time of the year,” said Ken Norton, executive director of the N.H. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “and for many, many, many people, that is what it is — an illusion.”
The holidays can be stressful for many reasons.
The lack of sunlight coupled with colder weather and more time indoors can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to the changing seasons that typically begins in late fall and ends by springtime.
Holidays are also “steeped in tradition,” which can be hard for people, according to Bethann Clauss, executive director of Maps Counseling Services in Keene.
“... For so many people, [that] triggers grief, loss, feeling left out, that they don’t belong, depending on what their family’s structure or life experiences have been,” she said. “There’s an expectation to be full of joy and good cheer, but that’s not realistic for all of us.”
There are also financial stressors that come with buying gifts and preparing for holiday gatherings, Clauss said.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates these issues, according to experts.
Norton, of NAMI, said many people are “emotionally raw” from dealing with the pandemic and its realities. COVID-19 has also become a polarizing topic, and many families don’t agree on all aspects of it.
“That creates a lot of tension for families to navigate around the holidays in some ways,” he said. “Unlike politics, which can be very divisive at the holidays, there’s little avoiding talking about the pandemic. ... I think it adds a lot of stress to what is already a pretty stressful time of year.”
Phil Wyzik, executive director of Monadnock Family Services in Keene and Peterborough, added that out of an abundance of caution, family gatherings might be smaller or not take place at all, which can lead to isolation and loneliness.
“Even those that still occur might be filled with the conflict and polarization that fills our society regarding the virus and vaccinations, politics or social problems,” he said in an email.
Clauss echoed this, saying that deciding whether or not to visit family can add to or cause feelings of anxiety.
To help with these issues, the mental health experts said it’s important to acknowledge these feelings and to find healthy ways to deal with them.
Wyzik said proper nutrition and sleep, exercise, meditation or anything that brings you joy are all great ways to help your brain decompress. A change in mindset can also help, he added.
“People should know that, even under many stressful things in life at this time of year or any time, there is power in looking for the positives,” he said. “There are great health benefits in seeing things to be grateful for, or doing things for others.”
Wyzik noted that while it can be tempting to deal with mental health issues with substances like alcohol or nicotine, that can do more harm than good.
Acknowledging the emotions — either internally or with a loved one — is also helpful, Clauss and Norton said.
“In general, it’s important to notice what we’re feeling and to create a space to acknowledge what is there,” Clauss said. “Sometimes, we try to put a bunch of frosting on top of the burnt cookie, but if there is pain ... it can help you to honor that pain.”
People can schedule an appointment with Monadnock Family Services or access its emergency service line at 357-4400.
To schedule an appointment with Maps Counseling Services call 355-2244. Maps also has an office in Peterborough at 924-2240.