Southern California authorities and parents struggle with surge in unfounded school shooting threats

Students at Citrus Valley High School in Redlands became concerned when a classmate stopped talking to people for several days. Some noticed he went silent shortly after a 15-year-old in Michigan shot and killed four students at his school in late November.

The students contacted authorities on Dec. 3 and said they feared the Inland Empire teen might be planning to harm people.

When police interviewed the boy, he told them his odd behavior was part of what he called a “social experiment. ” He said he did not intend to hurt anyone. Investigators determined he did not have access to weapons and did not present a threat to others.

“We have to take every report seriously,” Redlands police spokesman Carl Baker said. “We don’t want to be in a position where we ignored something that should have been ringing alarm bells.”

Campuses nationwide receive reports of possible attacks every day, and the overwhelming majority are unsubstantiated. But none can be ignored. And each one has the potential to result in panic, Redlands Unified School District spokeswoman Christine Stephens said, regardless of whether any credible threats were made,

“School districts across the county routinely see an uptake on false alarms … after incidents similar to the one at Oxford High School (in Michigan) occur,” she said.

RUSD officials, like those in many other districts, send a bulletin to all parents each time they learn about a possible threat to the safety of students. This is typically done the same day they learn about a threat, after police have conducted their preliminary investigation.

That’s partly because if they wait too long to release vetted facts, they leave the door open for disinformation to spread via word of mouth and social media, Stephens said.

“Found in a pali classroom”

On the morning of Monday, Dec. 6, a social media post containing a photo of what appeared to be three handguns along with the message “Found in a pali classroom” led to panic at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades.

Some took shelter behind locked doors as authorities investigated the threat, parents said. Others fled the campus. Several students scaled tall chain-link fences when security guards barred them from leaving through one of the school’s gates.

Authorizes did not find anything to suggest that students and faculty were ever at risk, and school officials had been in contact with police prior to the commotion, PCHS principal Pamela Magee said in a statement at about 2 p.m. Monday.

That was hours after some parents had already received frantic messages from their children and rushed to school to take them home.

“We regret that you did not have this information and will provide more details going forward,” Magee wrote in a follow-up bulletin.

Dozens of other parents who signed a letter responding to the incident accused school officials of “negligence.” They believe they should have been notified of the potential threat earlier and given the option to send their kids to school or keep them home.

“Even when accounts of the threat — and accompanying, understandable panic, given the information void — began to spread on campus and throughout our community today, there was no systemic approach nor clear communication,” parents said in their letter to Magee.

School officials will “be working with students and staff to be better prepared” to respond to future threats, credible or otherwise, Magee said. She added that if investigators had any reason to believe anyone on campus was in danger, parents would have been notified immediately and the campus would have been placed on lockdown.

Buena Park and Ontario arrests

Such measures weren’t deemed necessary after students at Buena Park High School discovered a picture of a gun posted to TikTok Sunday morning, Dec. 5, along with the message, “Don’t come to school tomorrow if you (want to) live.”

Police identified the creator of the message as another student who did not actually have a gun and used a photo he took from the internet to make the post. The boy was arrested and booked into juvenile hall, police announced Monday.

“If you post a threat online, we are going to find out who you are, and we will be showing up at your doorstep,” Buena Park Police Sgt. Chad Weaver said.

Police in Ontario alerted parents Tuesday, Dec. 7, after they were notified of online threats referencing Ray Wiltsey Middle School. The following day they announced that a minor was arrested in connection with the post.

Several air-soft guns that were pictured in the student’s post were confiscated from the boy’s home by officers, Ontario Police spokeswoman Emily Hernandez said.  The seized items use air pressure to fire non-lethal projectiles, and can legally be used by minors.

Law enforcement will typically increase its presence near campuses targeted by threats, whether or not they have confirmed if the reports are credible.

And if there were ever evidence to suggest a shooting was about to take place at a school, the Buena Park Police department would broadcast an advisory to residents as soon as possible, without waiting for approval from school officials, Weaver said. In the past, the agency has issued bulletins about armed suspects near schools, which have prompted lockdowns.

Different types of threats

A wide variety of situations might be considered threats by administrators and law enforcement. A large portion of reports of potential violence at schools investigated by Redlands police involved disputes between individual students, or between students and their teachers.

Departing from that pattern, an Orangewood High School student was arrested Wednesday, Dec. 8 after he allegedly brought an unloaded “ghost gun” to campus,  Police said he did not make any specific threats toward the campus.

Many reports related to a potential mass shooting on a Redlands campus were based on comments overheard in passing by students. Investigators take each one seriously, but so far none of those have been linked to any legitimate plans for a mass shooting, Baker said.

So far in the last two months of 2021, schools and law enforcement agencies have also issued bulletins about reports of guns or possible threats of violence at schools in Los Alamitos, Bloomington, Long Beach, Corona, Santa Monica and others. None were deemed credible.

John Smith, a parent of a sophomore at Morningside High School in Inglewood, said he has never received a bulletin from school officials regarding threats to students. He believes a mass shooting would be extremely unlikely at his son’s school, a small campus made up of mostly Black and Latino families.

“As the father of a young Black man, I’m always worried,” Smith said. “But there’s gangs, how he’ll be treated by police, and a whole lot of other things that come to mind sooner.”

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