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Schools face violent threats and lockdowns in wake of Texas shooting

Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 26, two days after the shooting there. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Schools across the country are facing a wave of violent threats in the days following the devastating rampage at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas that left 21 people, including 19 students, dead.

Experts say that while school threats are a daily occurrence, schools are now on edge as administrators assess threats made on social media and in classrooms, resulting in heightened security and lockdowns.

In New York, Suffolk County police said they arrested a 16-year-old for posting on social media Thursday that he planned to conduct a “massive shooting” at Bellport High School, which he attends. In Maryland, a high school in Prince George’s County went into lockdown on Thursday after a student brought parts of a “ghost gun” into a classroom; the student was later arrested. And at least six threats have been made this week against schools in Texas, according to media reports.

While there’s no national database tracking school shooting threats, experts say it’s not surprising that there would be more of them reported in the wake of the Texas massacre.

“In the aftermath of a school shooting tragedy, school shootings are front of mind for everyone and we may be more inclined to report suspected threats of violence, thus increasing the number of threats,” James Densley, professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and a co-founder of the Violence Project, wrote in an email. “At the same time, high school students try to seize on the moment by calling in hoax threats to get school canceled.” In other cases, the threats may be made by people wanting to copy the most recent tragedy.

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David Riedman, co-founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, said he has recorded more than 2,500 instances of threats to carry out school shootings through media reports since 2018, though warned that this is far from an exhaustive database.

Already, in the days following the Uvalde shooting, schools have informed families about threats of gun and other violence against their children’s schools, announcing shutdowns and arrests of suspects.

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In Southern California, a high school canceled classes Friday after a threat that appeared to target the school circulated on social media. The threat reportedly originated in Texas and was later deemed to be not credible.

“The District encourages everyone in our community to be alert and if they see or hear anything that concerns them, to bring it to the attention of a trusted adult right away,” a statement from the school district to families read.

And across Texas, threats or incidents of violence were reported this week in at least six school districts, according to the Dallas Observer.

These included three instances of a student bringing a weapon to school, the accidental discharge of a parent’s gun near school and a bomb threat. The district that received the bomb threat, Mercedes Independent School District, also drew “a social media rumor threat,” according to spokeswoman Daisy Espinoza.

In response, the district “went ahead and canceled school for the rest of the year,” she said. “Just totally canceled.”

On Wednesday, Donna Independent School District in Texas canceled classes after they received credible threats of an attack on the high school. Two minors and two adults were arrested.

“In light of the recent events and in an abundance of caution, we will be canceling school districtwide and staff will work from home,” school officials wrote in a letter to families. “The safety and security of our students & staff is our first priority.”

In the weeks following the 2021 Oxford High School shooting in Michigan, the nation’s school districts grappled with threats made on social media. The result was hundreds of school shutdowns as administrators worked to determine which threats to take seriously and which to consider hoaxes.

At the time, Maryland’s Howard County, for example, wrote a message to families about “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.”

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Amy Klinger, co-founder and director of programs for the Educator’s School Safety Network, said her organization has been tracking school threats and incidents since 2013. One major reason for spikes in threats now is that some teenagers are trying to mimic the tragic events in Texas they see reported on so widely in national media, Klinger said.

She predicts that the threats will subside in the coming days and weeks as schools let out for the summer and news outlets turn to reporting on other topics.

In the meantime, Klinger said, schools must take every threat seriously, launching investigations and communicating instantly with parents and students about what steps officials are taking in response.

She also noted that schools typically receive more threats in the final stretch of the academic year, as bored teenagers looking to get out of exams send hoax threats. But Klinger cautioned against canceling classes, saying that keeping children engaged with school is one way to help prevent violence.

“Going virtual is one of the contributing factors to … the social issues and the violence we’re seeing right now, and not just in schools,” she said. “People are disconnected, they’re spending too much time in front of screens, they don’t have good relationships.”

Riedman, the co-founder of K-12 School Shooting Database, said his group is trying to learn why students engineer empty threats when the consequences are so severe, and how leaders should assess the myriad threats that schools receive.

Schools face threats on social media, in classrooms, in scribblings on walls, said. There is no uniform training for how personnel should assess threats and, according to Riedman, when the threats unfold in school buildings, it often falls to one person’s discretion on whether to report them.

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