A threat of violence called into Kenwood High School that was deemed not credible, a Dundalk High School student pictured with an air pistol in his waistband, false claims that a vague threat was directed at Sparrows Point High School – alerts of alleged threats to schools pinged parents’ phones across Eastern Baltimore County throughout December.
Each case was later investigated by police and found to hold no bearing, yet still managed to cause widespread panic on social media, leading parents and guardians to pull their kids from class and spread unfounded rumors online. The Baltimore County Police Department and Baltimore County Public Schools are urging people to report threats only to police and school officials to let them evaluate and respond, giving reassurance that every potential threat is taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.
In the first half of the school year, over 75 school violence threats were investigated by BCPD in conjunction with the school system, according to county schools spokesperson Charles Herndon.
That’s more than usual, he added, and there seemed to be an even more significant spike in the two weeks ahead of winter break. But the threats circulated across local social media pages this month had one thing in common – they were all hoaxes.
“Very infrequently do any of these pan out, or turn out to be substantial or backed up by any later development or event,” Herndon said.
Many of the threats, or rumors of them, are vague and not specific to a single school, according to Maryland’s Center for School Safety deputy director Joseph Pignataro, yet they circulate on social media and create fear in the community. A notable example in recent weeks was a widely circulated TikTok clip which claimed there would be school violence on Dec. 17; it was found to have originated in Arizona two years ago.
“A kid will find (a generic threat) and share it with their friends, who then share it with their friends. It spreads like wildfire, and keeps propagating,” Pignataro said, adding that his office’s anonymous reporting system received more notifications related to that clip alone than it does on average every month. When the office receives a tip, an alert is issued to schools and local law enforcement entities, and an investigation opens.
The threat called in to Kenwood High School this month placed three schools in the area on a precautionary “lockout” status, meaning the exterior doors were locked to prevent intruders from coming in. The rumored threat to Dundalk High involved a photo of a student seemingly brandishing a gun, which was later determined to be an air pistol. The rumored threat to Sparrows Point started from a screenshot of a vague, anonymous text message that circulated on social media across multiple states; it claimed a gun would be fired “in school tomorrow,” without mentioning any specific school.
Apparent trends of school violence threats are not new, according to BCPS spokesperson Herndon. Baltimore County saw spates of phony threats called in to schools in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now, Herndon said, fear and anxiety from the coronavirus pandemic could be spurring the latest wave of threats.
“There is a lot of anxiety out there… and a lot of that is coming from the last few years, having been cooped up in our homes and away from schools,” Herndon said. “Anytime a community experiences stress, civic unrest and turmoil, it influences how people think and feel, and people feel most strongly about the education and safety of their children.”
In addition to feelings of fear and anxiety, students are often allowed unsupervised access to social media, which they believe provides a degree of anonymity and the opportunity to make inappropriate posts in order to evoke a response, according to Herndon.
“In most cases, (these threats) are designed to generate the type of reaction that they generate, which is fear and excitement, and in some cases, a police response or evacuation,” Herndon said.
Once these “sensationalized” rumored threats are on social media, Herndon added, students or parents with good intentions might share or repost them to warn others. But the spread not only causes a public panic; it might help to inspire copycats.
“Wildfire speculation fuels these. People believe they are doing the right thing by letting their neighbors and friends know, but (the rumors) spiral into a tornado that way.” Pignataro said, adding that very few of the rumors are actually spread maliciously.
The quick spread of rumored threats on social media can also “interfere with the investigative process,” according to Sgt. Anissa Thomas, who is the assistant facilitator of the county’s “Safe Schools” initiative, a liaison between Baltimore County’s police department and school system.
“Instead of sharing, call the police, and then we will get communication out once the investigation concludes,” Thomas said, noting that if the police department is involved early on, then personnel can investigate and get the correct information out faster. Police release information on the department’s social media accounts, or by request through their public affairs office.
Schools are safer today than they ever have been, Herndon said; this is due in part to more video surveillance inside and outside, and more safety plans, protocols and procedures that are in place for virtually every situation.
Moreover, schools have sworn law enforcement officers that are assigned to them, and critical incident response teams that are trained for emergency situations. Regardless of the nature of the threat, police investigate each one as though it was credible, and send an additional presence to schools during investigations.
Baltimore County, Herndon said, has a “robust system” in place to ensure the safety of students and staff, and rumors of threats spreading on social media only add to the stress and anxiety in the community.
“Most of these threats,” Herndon said, “are not based in reality and are designed to get a rise and response out of the media, schools and law enforcement. It is important that people inform themselves with good information to make sure they are acting and responding appropriately and not inflaming what is already an anxious situation.”
If you hear or see something unusual or suspicious, call 911 or the county police department’s non-emergency line at 410-887-2222. You can also report your concerns to school administrators, or leave an anonymous tip with the Center for School Safety at schoolsafety.maryland.gov/Pages/Tipline.aspx.