A spike in threats of school violence since last month's mass school shooting in Florida is spurring calls to crack down on students and others who make false threats.
There has been over a 300 percent increase nationally in school threats reported each school day since 17 people were killed at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, according to the Educator's School Safety Network. North Carolina has seen a sharp increase in threats, leading school board members to urge lawmakers to make it a felony to make a threat of mass violence on school property.
More than 84 percent of school board members who responded to a recent North Carolina School Boards Association survey said they support a bill making it a Class H felony to communicate a school threat. The bill received unanimous support from the House last year but stalled in the Senate. It's eligible for consideration this year.
“You want to deter crime and it is a criminal offense to threaten violence on school property," said Minnie Forte-Brown, president of the NCSBA board of directors and a member of the Durham school board. "We’re not playing. It’s not something to be toyed with.”
School threats since the Florida shooting have taxed both law enforcement and school officials. They have also brought angst to parents and students who fear their school could be next.
"Since the Parkland shooting, there has been a dramatic uptick in school-related threats of violence," State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Elliott Smith said last week to state lawmakers who are studying how to improve school safety. "We’ve been working hard. We’ve been running hard in law enforcement."
Smith is the agent in charge of the North Carolina Information Sharing and Analysis Center (NC ISAAC), which coordinates information between federal, state and local authorities.
Some recent threats at area schools include:
▪ Heritage High, Heritage Middle and Heritage Elementary School in Wake Forest were placed on lockdown on March 20 because of a bomb threat;
▪ Triton High School in Harnett County was evacuated on March 15 after receiving a bomb threat;
▪ Broughton High School in Raleigh postponed a student walkout against school violence on March 14 due to a rumored social media threat;
▪ West Johnston High in Benson was placed on lockdown on March 9 after police said seven teens illegally tried to enter the school;
▪ Clayton police stationed extra officers at several schools on Feb. 23 after authorities said some Clayton High students made threats of violence on social media.
Johnston County school board member Ronald Johnson told his colleagues at last week's meeting that a teacher at West Johnston High had her students barricade the door during the lockdown. Johnson said the teacher told him she had been willing to protect her students even at the cost of her own life.
“It’s beyond admirable that they’re willing to do that, but they shouldn't have to think that way," said Johnson, a detective with the Smithfield police and a former school resource officer. "We need to protect them. We owe it to them to protect them."
There have been so many threats that school officials are urging parents and students to share concerns directly with authorities instead of spreading rumors on social media.
North Carolina had the 14th most threats of any state since the Parkland shooting at 32 threats and incidents, according to Amanda Klinger, director of operations for the Educator's School Safety Network.
There were 1,247 school threats and incidents of violence nationally in the month after the Parkland school shooting, according to the organization.
The Ohio-based group said the average number of school threats nationally went from 13.2 a day before Parkland to an average of 59.4 a day in the month since then.
“Contagion research would indicate that you’d see a 20 percent bump after an incident," Klinger said. "We’re seeing a 300 percent increase, and that’s been surprising."
The group found the number of threats nationally increased to more than 100 a day at one point but dropped to 15 threats on March 16.
"It’s tapering back off more toward the normal level, but we’re not back at the normal level," Klinger said.
Some members of the new House Select Committee on School Safety raised concerns last week about making the penalty for a school threat a felony because it could follow a student for the rest of his or her life.
But Forte-Brown, the school board member, said raising the consequences for making a threat could cause students to think before acting.
"It will be a deterrent to calling in and making threats," she said. "It’s more of a deterrent than anything else.”