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Safety & Discipline

Threats against schools still spiking in state, nation

Jamie Martines
| Thursday, March 1, 2018, 5:06 p.m.
People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that killed 17 and injured more than a dozen on Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Getty Images
People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that killed 17 and injured more than a dozen on Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Connellsville Area High School students disarm district Director of Security Michael Parlak during an ALICE active shooter drill at the  high school.
Tony Sonita | The Daily Courier
Connellsville Area High School students disarm district Director of Security Michael Parlak during an ALICE active shooter drill at the high school.

Threats against schools across the nation continue to spike since the deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla., two weeks ago, and Pennsylvania is among states experiencing the most dramatic increases in such incidents over the longer term.

The Ohio-based Educator's School Safety Network, a nonprofit school safety consultant, has tracked more than 70 threats of violence against schools nationwide per day between Feb. 14, when the shooting occurred, and March 1. Seventeen died and more than a dozen were wounded in that incident. The network's research typically tracks about 10 violent threats or incidents per day; it counted 673 incidents at 490 schools in just over two weeks.

Analysts with the Pennsylvania State Police logged about 75 threats to schools across the state that led to state police or local law enforcement investigations between Feb. 14 and Feb. 23, the latest day for which data are available, spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said.

The Tribune-Review has tallied 33 such incidents in Western Pennsylvania alone since the shooting, causing students from Buffalo Township to Jeannette to Somerset County evacuate, lock down or miss school altogether. That brings to 50 the number of threats in the region since school began last fall.

At least 12 threats have been reported this week across Western Pennsylvania, including:

• Evacuations because of threats at West Hempfield Middle School, Mt. Pleasant Area High School and Norwin High School, all in Westmoreland County, as well as at Frazier High School in Fayette County;

• Verbal threats made by three juvenile students in the Penns Manor School District in Indiana County who now face terroristic threats charges;

• Threatening remarks on social media referencing a shooting at Connellsville Area High School, resulting in an 18-year-old student facing terroristic threats and disorderly conduct charges;

• Threats made toward Jeannette City and Derry Area School Districts, both in Westmoreland County, resulting in cancellation of classes.

Though a spike in threats is expected following a high-profile incident, Tarkowski said that the increase in threats has been more pronounced following the Florida shooting.

That mirrors an ongoing uptick in threats fielded by schools nationwide, according to the data collected by Educator's School Safety Network.

Even before the Parkland shooting, a December 2017 report by the network found that Pennsylvania has been experiencing one of the most dramatic increases in the number of school threats or incidents compared to other states.

When evaluated for the number of threats, actual number of events and events per million residents, Pennsylvania was ranked second on the report's list of "states of concern." California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin were also among the top 10 states where the number of threats or incidents was statistically significant, according to the report.

Consequences for those caught making threats can be severe and long-lasting.

At least 13 individuals face charges in connection with making threats against schools in Western Pennsylvania since Feb. 14, according to local and state police reports. In at least eight of those cases, the suspect is a juvenile between the ages of 12 and 16 facing either misdemeanor or felony terroristic threats charges.

Westmoreland County Juvenile Probation has handled at least five such cases since the Florida shooting, Deputy Director Norm Mueller said.

"I don't think they realize the ramifications of these charges, and that they can basically affect the entire outcome of their life," Trooper Brent Miller said during a Pennsylvania State Police Facebook Live event on school safety Thursday.

Under Pennsylvania law, a terroristic threats charge could be filed if a person communicates, either directly or indirectly, a threat to commit any crime of violence, to cause evacuation of a building or to cause other public inconvenience or terror.

The offense could be upgraded from a misdemeanor of the first degree to a felony of the third degree if the threat disrupts normal activities.

"That threat is going to have consequences on the entire community really, and we've seen that all across the nation in the wake of the school shooting there in Florida," Cpl. Adam Reed said during the event. "And certainly you don't want to be the one responsible, and you don't want to be the one to face the consequences because you make what you believe to be a joke, or what you think to be a seemingly innocent statement."

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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