Social media shooting threats against elite schools are spreading fear

A 14-year-old freshman at Murrow High School in Brooklyn was sitting in history class one morning in April when she received a series of chilling texts from a friend. A threat to shoot the school had been posted on the chat site Omegle – and it included a list of around a dozen students who would be killed. One of them was the 14 year old girl.

“Seeing your child’s name on a literal list was really the most completely devastating thing,” said Jessica Heyman, the girl’s mother.

But the girl, whose name is not disclosed, knew immediately that the threat was a hoax: a few days earlier, another threat had targeted students from another New York high school, the Clinton School, in using precisely the same language.

The incidents in Murrow and Clinton were two in a series of nearly identical prank threats targeting more than a dozen New York City schools over the past four months, and at least nine other schools across nationwide, including those in Long Beach, Calif., and Hicksville, NY, on Long Island, according to parents, students and two senior law enforcement officials.

Schools in New York include many of the city’s most prestigious public and private schools, including Brooklyn Friends School, Brooklyn Technical High School, and Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, as well as Beacon High School, LaGuardia High School and the United Nations International School in Manhattan. . Just this week, police said a threat was made against New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn.

John Miller, assistant commissioner of the police department’s intelligence division, said the department is investigating seven of those threats in New York and is coordinating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which investigates threats nationwide.

“These are not credible threats,” Miller said. “They are meant to cause disruption.”

Authorities believe the threats are being made by someone – possibly overseas, Mr Miller said – who finds the names of students at a school by searching Instagram for children with public accounts using skills rudimentary in social media. Often they pose as a student at the school they are threatening, Miller added.

The threat actor is targeting high-profile schools for attention but does not appear to have any intention of following through, according to a senior law enforcement official, who spoke anonymously because he was not allowed to discuss threats.

“We take every security incident seriously to ensure the continued safety of our students and staff and are working closely with the NYPD on their investigation of these threats,” said Jenna Lyle, spokesperson for the ministry. education.

For decades, American schools have had to deal with false fire alarms, bomb threats and threats to carry out school shootings. But these hoaxes reflect a disconcerting new reality for a country already reeling from an epidemic of mass violence: Social media has made it increasingly easy to create eerily specific threats of violence that obstruct one of the few ways available to the police to control them.

“If the system is overwhelmed with false alarms, some might get through,” said Ron Avi Astor, a social welfare professor who studies school violence at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It takes away a big tool.”

The site where the hoax threats were made, Omegle, was also occasionally used by the shooter who killed 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Hoax threats posted on Omegle about New York schools mentioned the type of assault rifle that would be used in a shoot and the music that would play: Abba.

The prevalence of school shooting threats — and a slight increase following a particularly notorious or deadly mass shooting — is not uncommon. For most of this school year, the city averaged about two school shooting threats a day, the top law enforcement official said. In the week following the Uvalde shooting, the number soared to around six a day.

“Only a small percentage of these threats are serious. Others will make threats as a prank or in an effort to be disruptive, much like previous generations who would sound a fire alarm or make a prank phone call,” said Dewey G. Cornell, professor of psychology at the University. from Virginia who studies youth and violence. “The stakes are higher now with social media and the huge anxiety generated by the threat of a school shooting.”

Despite the hoax threats, targeted school shootings are rarer in big city schools. A 2020 federal report found that while urban schools had more shootings overall, those shootings typically stemmed from conflict and occurred outside of the school building.

Department of Education spokeswoman Ms Lyle said school officials at each school are trained in emergency response protocols and that “following a threat, schools typically introduce additional security measures, including scanning and deploying additional NYPD school security officers.”

After the hoax directed at Berkeley Carroll, a private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, circulated in early February, the school tightened security and allowed students to attend remotely for several days. But he did not close or lock down the school, telling parents he was following police recommendations.

A disturbing feature of the threats is that they also name the student who is supposed to carry out the attack. Weeks before the Murrow High School threat, Chelsea Altman was awakened at her Brooklyn home by a call from a detective in Long Beach, California.

His 14-year-old son, the detective told him, was named as the person who would shoot a school there. She woke up her son. It turns out he already knew he had been falsely identified as a potential threat – but not at this school. He had learned the day before that he was named as the potential aggressor in the threat against the Clinton school in Manhattan.

“It took me a few minutes to unpack what really happened and realize there is someone doing this to scare everyone,” Ms Altman said.

Long Beach police said the threat, made against Wilson High School on March 30, was similar to threats made against high schools in New York City and that detectives “determined there was no credible threat.” .

A month after the Clinton school threat, a friend of Ms. Altman’s son was named as the potential attacker in a mass shooting threat against LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. The list of supposed victims included several of his friends. “They added all my mutual friends from Instagram and added them as names,” the 15-year-old said.

In the days that followed, he received hundreds of hate messages, including threats, from people who had seen the LaGuardia threat and assumed it was real.

“Nowadays there is no threat of ‘hoaxing’ or pranks because the fear and the stress and trauma that goes with it is very real,” said Justin Brannan, the city councilor who represents the city. district which includes New Utrecht. He compared the similarly worded threats to the childhood game “Mad Libs”.

Omegle, which allows people to video chat with strangers, claims to have several million daily users. After the Uvalde massacre, a 17-year-old girl came forward to say she had disturbing interactions on Omegle with the shooter, who showed her a gun, with blood visible on the floor, and claimed he was bleeding from the nose.

Threats made against Omegle against schools in New York and elsewhere follow a pattern, the top law enforcement official said: the person blocks their video feed, types the threat, then leaves the chat. Threats come to the attention of authorities after people who have seen them capture and share them.

The law enforcement official said authorities in New York had subpoenaed and received chat records from Omegle, including the IP addresses of people posting the threats, but they were constantly in dead ends, in part due to the encryption software used by the threat creator.

An Omegle spokesperson said the company “takes threats made by users on the platform very seriously” and “works closely with law enforcement investigating threats made by users.” on Omegle”.

For those who study school violence, the series of mass shooting warnings is just another chapter in a long history of false threats. The strategies change, they say, but the intent – to sow chaos and disruption – remains the same.

“We see it in the ebbs and flows,” Mr. Astor said. “It’s been a very long time since anyone called me about a false fire alarm.”

Téa Kvetenadze contributed reporting.