With every highly publicized school shooting, a copycat lies in wait.
It has been no surprise to school district public safety teams that the number of threats they investigate has increased in the weeks since a teen killed 17 and injured 14 more at a South Florida high school.
Metro Atlanta’s major districts say they have encountered dozens of threats targeting schools or groups of students. Some resulted in arrests, including a Gwinnett County teen who shared a video of a clip being loaded into a gun, and someone saying “South Gwinnett, you’re next.”
Social media’s ever-increasing popularity makes copycat threats more common than ever. The Educator’s School Safety Network, which tracks reports of threats and violence, said it sees an average of 10 to 12 incidents daily. Since the shooting in Parkland, Fla., that number has risen to at least 50.
And it is students, experts suggest, who need to be more aware of the dangers posed by making these threats.
“Many of these threats are made by young people who make some very poor decisions,” said Ken Trump, a nationally-known school safety and security expert. “We have to reinforce to young people on the front end that threats are going to be investigated thoroughly and have consequences.
“You can’t put the threat back into the smartphone when you press send.”
Every metro Atlanta school district has had to contend with calls about potential threats or people displaying strange behavior. In DeKalb County, public safety officials say the number of such calls has tripled in the past two weeks. In metro Atlanta, most of the investigated threats are from middle school students, often shared on social media. Parents across the region have been bombarded by notes from schools about enhanced security measures and additional staffing for safety.
Margaret Singleton, whose children attend high schools in Cobb County, said emails she has gotten explaining added security and safety measures reassure her when she sends them out for the day. The frequency of the shootings and threats, though, is a continuing concern.
“It makes me a little bit more paranoid sending them to school,” she said. “We send our kids to school knowing we’ll see them at three or five, whenever they get home. It just keeps getting closer to home.”
The case involving Lanier High School in Gwinnett County is not the only one that district has investigated, but it is the only one there so far resulting in an arrest. Several students at Peachtree Ridge High School face disciplinary action, officials said, after falsely posting on social media that another student was planning a violent act there.
“There is a responsibility that goes along with using social media and students should know that if they misuse social media and it creates a disruption at school that they can and will face discipline consequences at school,” Jeff Mathews, Peachtree Ridge principal, said in a letter to parents.
Fulton County school officials say they have investigated a handful of threats. A middle-school student was arrested after allegedly threatening violence against other students the weekend after the Florida shooting.
Georgians making threats typically are charged with making a terrorist threat, a misdemeanor, unless a death threat is specifically made. Terroristic death threats are a felony, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, between one and five years in prison or a combination of both.
A student investigated by a school district could face punishment up to expulsion. Last year, a Cobb County student wasn’t allowed to return to school following a racist rant the teen made on social media.
Chief Bradley Gober of the DeKalb County School District Department of Public Safety said his department uses a threat assessment protocol in investigations. Several members of his team comprise an emergency response unit that participates three times each month in active-shooter training.
“It has been a little taxing since what happened,” Gober said about the spike in threats and their drain on his department’s resources. “Whether it’s being a copycat or being funny, it’s putting people on edge. We investigate every one because we can’t take anything lightly.”
The new calls, Gober said, are mostly from parents, already on edge because of the latest shooting, worried that something they would have previously brushed off could escalate to the level of a major event.
“With an incident like (the Parkland shooting), as raw as it is, the already existing context and climate is going to be accelerated more,” said Trump, the school security expert.
In a 2015 study, Trump’s National School Safety and Security Services noticed more than two-thirds of threats target high schools and often are shooting or bomb threats. About a third of those were sent electronically, through social media, email or text messaging. And the impact varied, with some schools temporarily evacuated or closed a day or more and about 320 arrests in the 812 threats studied.
“Every one of these incidents is unique in some way,” Trump said. “The common thing across the board is that they involve allegations of failures of people and procedures.”
Michael Dorn, executive director for Safe Havens International, which has done security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools in 24 countries, said the vast majority of major incidents are not preceded by a warning.
Sadly, Dorn said, there is no distinct profile for someone who would make a threat against a school.
“The phenomenon is global, and the motivations can vary,” he said. “You get people mentally ill, or mad a school didn’t hire them. Every time I think I’ve seen everything, I’ll see something I would’ve never thought I’d seen.”
Parent Markevius Kemp, whose sons are first- and third-graders at DeKalb’s Flat Shoals Elementary School, said he is concerned with how little adults seem to know about the children around them, especially from a mental-health standpoint.
“When I was growing up, more parents were involved in PTA and all that,” he said. “When I was growing up, everybody knew everybody. I knew if my parents weren’t around, someone was going to come behind them and take up the load.
“It’s not like that anymore.”
Kimberly Wright, whose children attend DeKalb County schools, said she worries most about incidents not reported by schools or the school district. The shooting in Parkland, Fla., makes her uneasy about sending her children to school, but it is the students who inform her of what’s going on in the schoolhouses.
“There’s the anguish that comes with things like what happened in Florida,” Wright said, “but the reality is more real when you know these things are going on around you, and the schools aren’t saying anything.”