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False threats barrage schools in Virginia and beyond

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Culpeper County Sheriff's Office
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The Culpeper County Sheriff's Office responded to a false report of an active shooter at Eastern View High School on September 19.

A flood of false threats hit schools in Virginia and other states this September. Some of the threats seem to be connected; some do not. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Just before noon on September 19th, the Suffolk Police Department responded to a call of a supposed active shooter at Booker T. Washington Elementary School. It was a hoax – one that would be repeated with at least 10 other Virginia school districts that afternoon. Among them were Charlottesville, Culpeper County, Warren County, and Shenandoah County. In some cases, multiple schools within a district were alleged to be in danger.

The Virginia State Police said in a statement to WMRA that they [quote] "responded to assist numerous local police and sheriff's offices with reports of active shooters on school campuses [on the 19th]. None of the threats were deemed valid."

Law enforcement agencies are working to determine the source of the calls, and whether there is evidence to connect them. At least three of the local agencies stated online or to the media that the caller had an out-of-state number. A media contact with the FBI's Richmond field office told WMRA that they work closely with local law enforcement agencies on issues like this, but she couldn't comment more specifically.

NPR reported that, from September 13th to October 5th, they found over 100 false reports of such incidents in 19 states – with the greatest number happening in Virginia, Louisiana, and Minnesota. This is sometimes referred to as 'swatting' – when someone intentionally calls in a fake emergency in order to cause a law enforcement response at a certain location. NPR obtained audio of some calls in Ohio and one in Minnesota. In all of them, someone who sounded like an adult male spoke with a heavy accent and identified himself as a student at the targeted school. So far, though, no clear motive has been announced by authorities or claimed by any organization.

But these hoaxes about violence in schools don't only pop up in seemingly coordinated, geographically diverse incidents – sometimes they're inflicted on a community by the kids living there.

MICHAEL SCHNEIDER: You know, if you asked me before last year, I'd say it wasn't very common.

Michael Schneider is a detective with the Albemarle County Police Department.

SCHNEIDER: Unfortunately, within the last year, we worked several. … Whether they were credible or not, they are still happening. So I'd say it's more common now than it has been in recent years.

On September 9th, Schneider and other officers responded to a threat directed at Western Albemarle High School. He wasn't able to give specifics, but said it referenced the safety of the students, and was not a bomb threat. It got passed around on social media and was reported to the police by some concerned parents.

SCHNEIDER: We immediately responded as soon as we got the report, which was unfortunately several hours later, after it was already made. … After speaking with the juvenile, we determined it was not a credible threat.

The minor deemed responsible was charged with making threats of death or bodily injury.

SCHNEIDER: In my experience, I can say that kids seem to find doing this type of thing, or making these threats – they think they're jokes. They think it's funny. What motivates them? You know, I wish I had an answer for that. I just don't.

An Albemarle County Public Schools official shared a letter with WMRA that was written by a former student who posted a similar threat to social media a few years ago. In the letter, he tries to explain his motivation and remorse. He wrote it while being held at the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center, and we asked WMRA’s Christopher Correa to read a few excerpts.

STUDENT: The explanation for why I posted this message on an extremist, white supremacy web site should not and will not be acceptable to you.

STUDENT: In fact, there was no joke and I quickly realized that. I deleted the post almost immediately and was horrified when an image of my post still showed up hours later. I was scared and my own fear and shame increased when Charlottesville schools were shut down. I was trapped.

STUDENT: As a result, thousands of decent, caring and honorable people, including my friends and my family, suffered for what I did. … I am profoundly sorry for what I did.

Again, that was WMRA’s Christopher Correa reading that letter from a student. On September 6th, concerned parents contacted the Frederick County Sheriff's Office after their kids showed them messages that alluded to potential violence at Admiral Byrd Middle School.

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Warren Gosnell
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Lieutenant Warren Gosnell is the public information officer for the Frederick County Sheriff's Office

WARREN GOSNELL: There were photos sent and just some vague verbal insinuations of possible violence. I can't give the specifics of that with the pending court case.

Warren Gosnell is the public information officer for the sheriff's office. He said that, by tracing the social media messages that were sent from student to student, sheriff's deputies identified two local 13-year-olds who had written and sent them.

GOSNELL: Even for people as young as these two, there are going to be consequences, because this affected more than just the next day of school. … For a few days after that, there were some kids who didn't feel comfortable going back to school.

A press release issued by the sheriff's office said that almost half of the school's students did not go to class the next morning. Gosnell said their office is not seeing an uptick in these incidents in Frederick County, but they are paying attention to those happening elsewhere. And when they do happen, he noted that it can put a strain on first responders if an actual event, like a car crash, takes place simultaneously.

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Joanna Jennings
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Joanna Jennings is the director of community relations and training for Region Ten Community Services Board.

GOSNELL: Yes, we're still going to respond to those, but now we may be in a position where minutes matter. And so we're having to respond from the school where everything is okay, because this has turned out, thankfully, to not be a factual threat, but now people who need us are being delayed in our response being able to get to them.

When false threats like these do happen, there are resources available to help community members rebuild and respond to kids' mental health needs – such as the free online courses available through the Region Ten Community Services Board.

Joanna Jennings is the organization's director of community relations and training. They offer classes on childhood trauma, community resilience, and mental health first aid.

JOANNA JENNINGS: These courses are really helpful because they teach skills that adults can practice to help the young people in their lives feel more safe and connected.

Both of the law enforcement officers who spoke with WMRA asked students and parents to report it if they see a threat, even if they're not sure whether it's credible.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.