A seventh-grader was arrested and authorities are weighing charges against two other people as law enforcement agencies around Virginia investigate reports of violent threats against schools that experts say are likely inspired by Wednesday’s attack on a Florida high school.
At least 10 schools from Hampton Roads to far Southwest Virginia reported operating with an increased police presence this week, though all of the reported threats were ultimately dismissed as hoaxes and no district reported canceling classes, according to news reports and official statements.
In the Richmond area, officials at Hanover High School canceled a pep rally that had been scheduled for Monday after rumors began circulating last week about a social media post threatening a shooting and describing a list of targets.
“A lot of people just didn’t come to school because they were stressed out about everything that was going on,” said Kaleb Jones, a sophomore at the school. “Every class that I was in had at least eight people absent.”
Hanover High Principal Kris Reece said in an email to parents Sunday that an investigation determined the rumors were unfounded and that officials don’t believe a threat ever existed. Nonetheless, the school planned to increase law enforcement presence and canceled the rally “to minimize any further interruption to the instructional day,” she said.
“We understand that recent events and the ensuing rumors have been very upsetting and unsettling,” Reece wrote. “Please be assured that we will continue to work diligently alongside our law enforcement partners to ensure safety remains a top priority.”
In Norfolk, police arrested a 14-year-old Lake Taylor Middle School student Monday afternoon for allegedly threatening to harm his classmates. Police said in a statement that they were called to respond to the school at 6:30 a.m. after someone reported a social media post that said students who came to school Tuesday would be shot.
Police have not named the student but said he is facing a Class 6 felony charge for making threats of death or bodily injury to a person or persons on school property.
Three other schools in the Hampton Roads area faced threats between Friday and Monday morning, the Daily Press reported: Bethel and Kecoughtan high schools in Hampton and Western Branch High in Chesapeake.
Both the threats in Hampton were deemed “not credible” by police.
In Chesapeake, Western Branch High’s principal said in a message to parents that police have been in contact with a student overheard making threats and that school officials “are working closely with the police department to determine what, if any, charges and disciplinary action should be taken.”
In the Fredericksburg area, someone posted a picture of a handgun on multiple social media outlets accompanied by a threat to cause harm at two schools — T. Benton Gayle Middle in Stafford County and Thornburg Middle in Spotsylvania County, according to WTOP. Local law enforcement officials said they were investigating and that school would go on as normal, but with extra security.
In western Virginia, police responded to Buffalo Gap High School in Augusta County over a threat posted on social media, though the county School Board said in a statement that an investigation uncovered no imminent danger.
And in Russell County in the far southwestern tip of the state, the sheriff’s department conducted a sweep of Honaker High School following a threat and found no imminent danger. The department also investigated a general threat against schools in Castlewood, in which authorities said there were “numerous complaints that a photo was circulating, showing someone holding a long gun with a caption stating they were ready for Castlewood, Virginia, on Monday.”
Police said they determined the incident was a hoax after an investigation led them to a home where they seized a cellphone from a juvenile. The department said it will provide the evidence it collected to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to decide whether to bring charges.
That threats of violence directed at schools proliferate after a major act of violence such as the shooting deaths of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., is a well-documented phenomenon, said Dewey Cornell, director of the University of Virginia’s Virginia Youth Violence Project.
“After Columbine, we had a lot of threats; after Sandy Hook, we had a lot of threats,” he said. “There’s kind of a contagion effect.”
Virginia schools are required under state law to conduct safety audits and have threat assessment teams in place that evaluate threatening writing, messages and behavior. Schools around the state reported receiving more than 9,000 threats last school year, almost 2,000 more than the prior year.
Cornell said those threat assessment teams weigh each potential threat individually and determine an appropriate response.
“Many of these cases are not that complicated,” Cornell said. “There isn’t a serious threat. Maybe someone was teasing or bullying the student and they responded inappropriately and school administrators can deal with that problem.
“And in a small number of cases, they might discover someone is planning or preparing to carry out a violent act.”
Brian Van Brunt, the director of a consulting firm in Pennsylvania that specializes in school threat assessment, agreed.
“I think what we’re seeing is a tendency for people to post and share information because they’re not quite sure what to do,” he said. “They’re frustrated they see an opportunity to gain some attention. This might fall into that trolling experience; this idea of what we see in the meme culture. Posting things really to offend and get a reaction from others.”