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Copycat threats targeting schools no joking matter

Thursday, March 15, 2018

As the nation struggles to find solutions to the growing epidemic of school shootings, an issue that must be addressed by the criminal justice system concerns the increase in the number of copycat threats after each incident.

Though the word “hoax” is widely used, we believe the threats are much more serious and sinister.

Consider this report in a recent edition of USA TODAY:

“Breathless and whispering through the phone, a 13-year-old student called for help from her Ohio high school.

“’Help,’ she said in between whimpers. ‘He’s got a gun. He’s got a gun in my mouth.’

“Anxiety was already running high: It had been only a week after the deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla. Police dispatchers then got three other calls from Withrow University High School in Cincinnati.

“But it was all a hoax.”

Closer to home, in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., police in Youngstown, Austintown, Liberty, McDonald, Sebring, Boardman, Niles, Struthers and Alliance investigated threats made against local schools.

In Sebring, a 15-year-old Sebring McKinley High School student was arrested and arraigned in Mahoning County Juvenile Court on a misdemeanor charge of making false alarms after an alleged threat toward the schools.

In Youngstown, a social media threat indicating that Cardinal Mooney High School would be “shot up” had school officials and city police on high alert.

“We’re doing everything humanly possible to keep safe the children entrusted to us,” said Monsignor John Zuraw, spokesman for the Diocese of Youngstown. Police presence was increased the night of a school dance.

Speaking out

There are several aspects to local, state and national conversations about school safety. But one fact is incontrovertible: Students across America are no longer willing to remain silent while their friends, relatives and colleagues are gunned down within the confines of school campuses.

Wednesday’s school walkout by thousands of students is a manifestation of their anger. They are demanding action by lawmakers at all levels on the politically explosive issue of gun control.

No one is calling for a total ban of firearms, not even the very articulate and impassioned students of Marjory Stoneman high school. They recognize such a move would be unconstitutional. There are more than 200 million guns in circulation in the United States, including assault-type weapons. There also are millions of high-capacity magazines in private hands.

Thus, the current debate, triggered by last month’s Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman, isn’t over gun ownership, but over how to stop weapons from getting into the wrong hands and how to prevent mass shootings.

There’s palpable fear among students and, yes, educators that the killings in Marjory Stoneman, Sandy Hook Elementary and Columbine High School are the rule rather than the exception.

That is why the outcry over the availability of weapons of mass destruction, such as the AR-15 used in the Florida shooting by a teenager, has become so intense.

It is this fear that the individuals – many of them school age – exacerbate when they call in, text or post on the internet threats of violence.

According to USA TODAY, more than 130 threats were reported and analyzed in the nine-day span after the Feb. 14 shooting in Florida.

The newspaper also reported that nonprofit organizations such as the Educator’s School Safety Network have compiled a list of 638 threats against schools in the weeks after the Florida massacre.

The ensuing panic resulted in the schools being locked down or closed and the deployment of bomb-sniffing dogs.

The perpetrators of such criminal behavior must be dealt with harshly by the criminal justice system.

There can be no mercy shown to those who terrorize schools. It is not a laughing matter.

Minors deserve to be dragged into juvenile court and placed in juvenile hall for as long as it takes for them to understand the seriousness of their offenses.

Adults who issue threats against schools should be sentenced to prison.

There must be a price to pay for such acts of terror.

We believe the presidential commission on school safety headed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos should establish federal guidelines for dealing with copycat threats.

This is not a laughing matter.