In the weeks after a gunman killed 14 students and three school staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., law enforcement in Buffalo Niagara responded to dozens of reports of threats against schools.
At least three of the cases led to five arrests, including three teens at North Tonawanda High School who were charged with making terroristic threats after they were overheard discussing a scenario in which they would shoot students and faculty at their school. At the time, the North Tonawanda Police Department said it had investigated about 10 calls of threats against North Tonawanda schools since the Feb. 14 Florida mass shooting.
The FBI wants to spread the word that law enforcement agencies are taking all threats against schools, churches and other public places very seriously – and kids are ending up arrested or in Family Court, even if the threat was a joke.
"A kid can’t just say 'I'm kidding,' " Sharon Mentkowski, a community outreach specialist with the FBI's Buffalo office, told a class of seniors studying criminal justice at Kenton Career and Technical Center in the Town of Tonawanda. "There is going to be a full-on response to these things."
She spoke to the class, a group of 18 seniors who have been part of a two-year criminal justice program, in the hopes that they can teach their peers about the consequences of making a false threat.
The FBI recently launched a national social media campaign to teach young people – and their parents – that hoaxes and threats can be prosecuted under federal law, similar to how extortion cases are handled. They're using the hashtag #ThinkBeforeYouPost. "You can face a maximum of five years in federal prison," Mentkowski said. "That's a long time for posting something or saying something."
Few people phone in bomb threats anymore, Mentkowski told the students. Now, potential threats are being posted on social media via Instagram and Snapchat. They're also being investigated after being overheard in multiplayer video games.
In the last few weeks, FBI agents investigated an 11-year-old boy just outside Rochester after he posted a threat on Instagram, said Maureen Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the FBI who also attended the workshop.
In another case, a student in Wayne County falsely claimed that a music teacher was wearing a button on his shirt that if he pushed, would detonate a bomb. The FBI and local law enforcement put the school on lockdown and brought in bomb-sniffing dogs to make sure the school was safe, Dempsey said.
"Sounds silly? That can't be real? From a law enforcement perspective, we don’t know. Every threat that comes in we take seriously," Dempsey said.
At the same time, the FBI said it's important for young people to not be afraid to report a possible threat.
A student asked about what happens to someone who reports a possible threat.
"You will not get in trouble with a federal agency," Mentkowski said. "Let us figure it out."
Sheila Quiles, 18, a senior at Kenmore West High School, said she feels her classmates understand the severity of making a threat against a school. She recalled being on a field trip when she received texts from her friends back on campus that there was a lockdown and teachers were rushing kids into classes. It turned out to be a drill.
But some kids, especially younger ones, might not realize that their jokes can have consequences. "Not everybody knows you're joking," she said. "You shouldn't play like that with people you're not familiar with."
Ryan Collins, 18, a senior at Tonawanda High School, said he feels younger kids who are just starting to learn how to play video games and use smartphones should be taught about the dangers of joking about threats.
"To prevent hoaxes you’ve got to teach them young — 11, 12 years old," he said. "That’s when they start getting into tech."