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Familiar formula repeats itself as threats in WNY follow Florida school shooting

Reported or rumored threats of violence roiled four area school districts on Thursday, one day after a teenager shot and killed 17 people at a high school in Florida.

Officials found no merit to the reports in the Buffalo, Williamsville, Frontier and Lake Shore school districts.

Evans police will have a presence on Lake Shore High School's campus on Friday, the school district said.

But an expert on the effects of school violence and trauma said it's no surprise that districts here and across the country confronted these unsubstantiated threats one day after the horrific school shooting.

"Unfortunately, it is something that we see when something like this happens," said Amanda Nickerson, director of the University at Buffalo's Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence.

Nationally, districts from Carmel, Ind., to Bryan, Texas, and Brunswick County, N.C., among others, were forced to address rumors of violence against their schools.

On Friday, Niagara-Wheatfield officials said they were increasing police presence at their schools due to an unconfirmed report "that someone saw an alarming social media post."

In two cases, the threats preceded the shooting in Parkland, Fla. Police got involved in each investigation, but found nothing of concern.

In the local cases, a "questionable" social media post prompted P.S. 156 Frederick Law Olmsted School in Buffalo to take extra security precautions on Thursday and to send a note to parents; Amherst police investigated a report of three students on their school bus who were overheard Wednesday threatening harm to Williamsville North High School, news that briefly led to concern among some parents a day later; and parents of students at Frontier Middle School received alerts on their smartphones informing them that, despite rumors, the school was not and is not in lockdown.

Nickerson and Clairissa Breen, an assistant professor of criminal justice at SUNY Buffalo State, said it's common to pay closer attention to rumors and reports of violence following a shooting that draws national, or international, attention. Bits of conversation or posts on social media that normally may be overlooked are given increased scrutiny.

"A lot of people do, because they are sensitive. 'Oh my God, it just happened, maybe I need to pay attention,' " said Breen, who teaches about terrorism and crime analysis.

Why do reports of threats tick up after a school shooting?

Some students may see the attention that the school shooter received and want the same for themselves. Some students may be acting out because of stress, unhappiness with their teachers or difficulties at home. Some may just be reckless with their words or making a poor decision.

Threats most frequently come in during the periods right before winter or summer vacation, during exam time and on the anniversaries of notorious school shootings, Breen said.

It's important for school officials, fellow students and parents to know the difference between a general, vague threat that typically doesn't lead to violence, such as "I wish my teachers would die," and more serious threats that refer to specific actions on specific days and specific locations or victims, Breen said.

Warning signs typically precede acts of violence such as mass shootings, bombings, domestic violence or suicides, and these include the giving away of money or personal possessions, extreme changes in mood and comments to classmates or concerning posts on social media, said Breen, who called this "information bleed."

Now, Breen said, "They're mostly found to be without merit, but it doesn't mean they should be ignored. No threat should be ignored."

The key is making sure accurate information gets out to the school community as quickly as possible, because rumors often outpace facts in these situations.

"Every parent, I'm sure, has heightened awareness and is thinking about, could this happen at our school? And being fearful. That's very natural when we're so exposed to these horrific events," Nickerson said.

Should parents keep their students out of school following a threat, even one that's proven false?

Nickerson said it usually doesn't help to disrupt a student's routine, and a parent who indulges that fear could be doing more harm than good.

"It's important to give our kids accurate reassurances that they are safe," said Nickerson, who noted that statistics show school is one of the safest places for students.

But Breen said there is value to providing a "family mental health day," as she put it, if a student is too afraid to go to school. A parent should stay home as well, in that case, and work on comforting the child.

"If a person says, 'I don't feel safe. I want to keep my kid home,' that should 100 percent be their right," Breen said.

News staff reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.

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