Education

The Coast has seen a lot of school threats, but why is it happening and what can be done?

Harrison County Sheriff's deputy J. Britton stands outside West Harrison High School on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Britton is one of two officers assigned to the school on a daily basis.
Harrison County Sheriff's deputy J. Britton stands outside West Harrison High School on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Britton is one of two officers assigned to the school on a daily basis. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

You have a missed call on your phone and a new voicemail.

You listen and it’s from your child’s school, letting you know the school has been placed on lockdown.

Sheer terror and panic set in.

But it was just a threat.

There have been several threats made against Coast schools since the shooting in Parkland, Florida, just more than a week ago. And the threats have been made at not only high schools but at middle and elementary schools as well.

Although no acts of violence have followed the threats, many are left wondering why this happening.

‘It really hit home’

While threats of school violence are keeping law enforcement officials busy, it’s also affecting parents and students

Bayou View Elementary School in Gulfport received a threat earlier in the week.

“We got a call Monday night saying a fifth-grade student made a threat,” said Jamie Campfield Bates. “It really hit home, especially after the shooting in Florida — shooters are targeting kids.”

Since then, there have been 12 other reported incidents at schools in South Mississippi, including one at North Gulfport Middle School that had children sheltering in place while police searched the campus.

“I do worry about a possible shooting happening at my school,” said D’Iberville student Karlie Dudney. “They’ve been happening a lot recently and it’s sad that you’re afraid to go to school.”

“I have always worried about school shootings, but the most recent one just opened my eyes to the real world and that it could happen any day at your school,” said another student, Payton Smith.

Why is it happening?

Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania said the way information is consumed plays a big role in the increase in reported school threats.

“I think what is happening is that when there’s a national incident like the school shooting in Florida where children are killed, we are under the perception that our children are in harm’s way,” Papania said. “We pay a lot of attention to everything and I say that as both a police officer and a father, and I think being bombarded by things on social media makes it worse.”

There are a lot more ways for students to make threats, viable or not, than there used to be.

With more and more children having access to smartphones and computers, threats can be made through a variety of platforms and apps including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Some apps even allow anonymous threats and messaging.

This week, Biloxi police were alerted to a threat that was initially thought to be made toward a local school. But in fact, it was made weeks earlier in Belen, New Mexico.

What can we do?

Papania said there’s a proper way to let police know a threat has been made, especially for parents.

“Many times, parents have information about other students, and if there’s a reason to be concerned, they should contact the police or a school official,” Papania said. “We don’t need to be blasting these kids on social media and make accusations against them that are going to follow them for the rest of their lives — we need to be vigilant but not vigilantes.”

Parents, he said, should also pay attention to what their kids are posting online

“We need to be vigilant about what is going on in our own homes and in our kids’ rooms and on their social media pages,” Papania said.

Harrison County Sheriff Troy Peterson said he believes reports of threats will soon subside.

“It’s still fresh in everybody’s minds,” Peterson said. “Everybody’s on edge but I believe things will start to calm down soon.”

Separating fiction from fact

Papania said systems have been in place or years in the Gulfport School District to vet potential threats and determine which may be a hoax. And it’s a system in which he believes.

“Our relationship is so good that we split the cost of the resource officers,” he said. “With the recent threats, I don’t think we have thwarted any potential school shooting, but when we get information, we investigate it.”

There is training for faculty and student drills. But most of the techniques used to decipher false threats is not made public because it could jeopardize the investigation as well as the privacy rights of the students.

Gulfport School District public information officer MC Price Barton said Gulfport schools receive annual training for many types of emergency scenarios.

“Our staff goes through a lot of training to help better prepare them for emergencies including a shooter scenario,” she said. “We have many security measures in place.”

In 2016, a 14-year-old was arrested for bringing a loaded handgun with 100 rounds of ammunition, an extra magazine and a mask to North Gulfport Middle School.

Papania said that was a different scenario than the vague threats that have been made over the last week or so.

“We had an incident a few years ago where someone brought a gun to a school and we may have stopped something because of the systems we have in place,” he said.

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