‘My kid is a school shooter now’: In Oklahoma, school threat hoaxes are harming students, disrupting learning and wasting law enforcement resources
On Sept. 17, threats of gun violence forced Yukon Public Schools to cancel classes for more than 9,000 students.
Posted on social media, the threats turned out not credible, but fearing the worst, administrators cancelled school so police could investigate.
Two students were arrested on complaints of terrorism by hoax.
That same day, about 25 miles northeast, a man called Edmond 911 and claimed he was inside a bathroom in Boulevard Academy near the main hall.
“So I’m in a school right now and I have a gun on me and there’s this kid I’m about to shoot,” the man told an emergency dispatcher.
A school resource officer immediately put the school on lockdown. Three other schools near Boulevard Academy also were locked down. Officers executed a room-by-room sweep of Boulevard Academy. Within 10 minutes, police determined the threat was not credible.
On Oct. 14, about 100 miles south of Oklahoma City, gun violence was threatened at Duncan High School.
According to court documents, Brandon Hays, 18, allegedly said he was going to wear a leather jacket to the school and shoot up the campus while playing the song “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People.
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The song’s hook repeats: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you'd better run, better run, outrun my gun.”
Hays was charged with one count of terrorism hoax. The crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
As students, parents and school administrators across Oklahoma and throughout the United States worry about violence on their campuses, a growing number of districts are also coping with the learning disruptions and psychological damage that comes through fake threats.
In Yukon, a fourth grade girl asked Superintendent Jason Simeroth if she was safe.
“You could see the apprehension in her eyes,” Simeroth said. “She was still concerned.”
Such threats also burden law enforcement agencies that devote resources to investigating each hoax in case it is legitimate.
Authorities say the threats are usually made on social media or sent via text, and typically increase in the aftermath of mass shootings. Following deadly tragedies at Santa Fe High School in Texas and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the FBI reported a spike in hoax threats to schools around the country.
“Although there are no national statistics on how many threats are made annually, the FBI estimates there are thousands,” said Andrea L. Anderson, FBI public affairs specialist for the Oklahoma City Division. “The FBI cannot provide a total count of the number of threats made because many such threats are reported to local law enforcement and not the FBI. ... However, hoax threats have increasingly become a federal law enforcement issue and the FBI often provides resources and assistance in these investigations.”
In Oklahoma, police have dealt with a rash of hoax school threats since the fall semester started.
“We have had four or five that we’ve actually had to look at,” Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes said. “I don't know if people are taking to heart ‘hear something, say something,’ or people are monitoring social media more because of all the mass shootings we've had.”
Clabes said police respond to every threat, and even if it turns out to be a hoax, the same investigative process is followed, from securing campuses to interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence.
“We’re not the only district that’s dealing with this,” he said. “It’s becoming kind of a rave unfortunately, but it does cause a lot of burden on our manpower. We have to investigate it. We can’t not investigate.”
‘20 parents at the door’
Social media platforms make it easier for people to issue school threats, especially careless threats made in the heat of the moment.
“The way that this snowballed from the first online Snapchat to the second one within just a few hours, it really escalated not only our administrators’ level of anxiety and apprehension and safety for the kids, but it also affected everybody in the district because of the social media frenzy that follows these things,” Simeroth said. “It's getting to be more of a norm than in the past.”
The Department of Justice has awarded more than $85.3 million to fund school security efforts around the country, including educating students and faculty, and supporting first-responders to school shootings or other violent incidents.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance will help manage the school security programs nationwide, which include pursuing technological solutions to improve reporting of suspicious activity in and around schools, developing anonymous reporting systems, and training school officials to intervene when mentally ill people threaten school safety.
But some school safety experts caution that threats against campuses are causing overreactions from school administrators.
“Many schools are prematurely evacuating or closing, and then saying ‘we're doing it out of an abundance of caution while we investigate,’” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. “Administrators are confident that it is a hoax but they’re responding to an emotional appeasement of parents and staff, and setting a precedent that students know they’re going to close the school. Nine out of 10 will likely turn out to be a hoax, but nobody wants to be number 10 in that situation.”
In 2014, Trump’s group looked at 812 school shooting and bomb threats across the country, as reported by local and national media.
Among several findings, they noted 30% of the threats resulted in school evacuations; 10% of the threats closed school for at least the day of the threat; and many of the evacuations and closings “were done prematurely and unnecessarily, which can expose children to greater safety risks.”
A key component to any threat response is crisis communication. In this area, school administrators too often fail, Trump said. Schools are reacting, then assessing, instead of assessing then reacting.
“How are we going to decide when something is raised to a certain threshold where we’re going to need to get information out to the parents before we have 20 parents at the door trying to get their kids?” Trump said. “Rumors can move quickly and in some cases unexpectedly, and oftentimes the communication crisis is worse than the incident.”
Because rumored threats spread rapidly on social media, Trump urges school administrators to find out where parents are accessing information, and meet them there.
“They need to communicate as much as possible to counter the rumors and get out front and tell the parents what's going on,” he said. “What often happens is news stories focus on parents’ complaints about the communication gaps rather than the actual incident. They are frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of communication. Parents are livid because they haven't heard anything in 20 minutes. You want to put out information but you want to put out accurate information.”
Trump said he’s spent the last couple of years teaching parents to “pull back and slow down” and not train their kids “how to fight off gunmen.” Hyper-vigilism among parents not only is not helping school authorities, but it’s creating anxiety among students, he said.
Meanwhile, Trump says, school administrators need to keep an eye on behavior among students that often leads to school threats.
“You've got to be careful not to get that tunnel vision focus where the only threat you’re focusing on is a school shooting while dismissing day-to-day threats like bullying and aggressive behavior,” he said.
‘This is so funny'
In a metro-area middle school earlier this semester, a 13-year-old boy was investigated by police because school officials heard a rumor he'd threatened to shoot up his campus.
To help protect the student, The Oklahoman will not name him or his mother.
Emails between the mother and school authorities, as well as text messages from the student’s classmates, obtained by The Oklahoman, paint the picture of a troubled kid who was harassed by classmates.
On Aug. 30, the student’s mother received an email from a teacher saying her son seemed to be “distant and withdrawn.”
On Sept. 11, the boy cut his wrists, the mother says, causing her to call 911 for help.
On Sept. 24, his mother says, she received a phone call from the school principal that her son needed to stay home because the school had learned he threatened the campus and his classmates were scared.
The boy’s mother also received an email from his school, stating that administrators were notified of a rumored threat, but investigating authorities found it not credible.
That day, the mother says, police showed up to her house and asked her son about threatening the school. The boy denied doing so.
As police further investigated, they discovered text messages between the boy and a female classmate.
The female classmate texted: “I did alert you of people spreading rumors of you threatening to shoot the school up”
The boy responded: “All u and ur sister cause is problems”
The classmate replied: “Actually we don’t. Everyone has been saying that. It was barely me and my sister”
The boy’s mother told The Oklahoman she believes the female classmate and her sister were involved in spreading the rumor about the school threat.
No arrests were made.
While the boy was out of school, he received more texts from the classmates, including this threat:
“Well everyone is saying that when you come back to school more than 10 kids told me that at least 15-20 kids want to beat you up for doing that”
In an email to the boy’s mother, a school administrator said she had seen screenshots of the texts.
“To say I am shocked would be an understatement,” the administrator said. “I am so very sorry for the way that (your son) is being treated by some of his peers and want to ensure that we get him back to school as soon as possible with the least amount of issues.”
The boy’s mother told The Oklahoman her son’s trauma worsened after returning to school. She reported to district administration that classmates taunted him and asked where his “list” was, supposedly in reference to a kill list.
“My son is a school shooter now,” his mother said. “It doesn’t matter that he’s innocent. And he’s not the only one this is happening to. This is happening all over. The children that it’s leaving behind emotionally scarred is becoming massive.”
The boy’s mother requested an emergency transfer to another middle school.
“I can’t have my 13-year-old kid try to commit suicide over treatment by kids at school,” she said.
Law enforcement officials and school leaders have warned the public that hoax threats can get kids killed as officers search campuses for potential gunmen.
When Boulevard Academy in Edmond was locked down, police searched the campus, prepared to confront an armed assailant.
In the texts between the metro-area middle school student and his female classmates, a teenage drama unraveled into a potentially deadly public panic. The boy repeatedly texted that he wanted to be left alone.
“The threats were rumors started by someone else,” he texted one of his female classmates.
“Okay. Thank God. Oh and also this is so funny.”