As threats multiply on social media, Harford police and school officials advise caution

Days after 17 people were shot and killed in a Florida school, Harford schools and police have dealt with at least three possible threats to three schools, all spread on social media and deemed to be unsubstantiated by police.

Harford County Public Schools has responded by encouraging parents to talk with their children about making baseless threats, warning everyone about the misuse of social media and providing reassurances that, in light of the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., safety is its most important focus.

“We pray that nothing like this ever occurs in our own community. Sadly, we have learned from national incidents that no school or school system can guarantee 100 percent safety of students and staff 100 percent of the time, but I want to reassure our community that safety is our number one priority,” Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan wrote in a letter, posted at www.hcps.org.

“We take deliberate and intentional measures to take care of our children by maintaining safe and secure learning environments. Each Harford County public school follows a critical incident plan which has been developed, vetted and approved by our Office of Safety and Security. The plans are well known and practiced by administrators, staff and students in the building, and provide guidelines for crisis response and prevention,” Canavan wrote.

Security at Harford Technical High School and North Harford High School was stepped up on Wednesday after what were deemed possible threats were made via social media.

Then on Thursday, police officers were dispatched to patrol around Havre de Grace High School after a social media post was perceived to be a threat to the school, school system officials said.

Administrators at Havre de Grace High were notified Thursday morning of SnapChat screenshot perceived to be a threat to the school, Jillian Lader, manager of communications for the school system, said in an email.

School administrators, the Havre de Grace Police Department and the Harford County Public Schools Coordinator of Safety and Security investigated the social media post and at the end of the investigation, it was determined the screenshot was in no way a threat to Havre de Grace High School, Lader said.

“The message was not directed at Havre de Grace High School and we found no valid or supporting documentation that the threat was credible,” Lader said.

Havre de Grace Police Department Cpl. Dan Petz said: “We are aware of the threat and have determined through investigation through the school and the school resource officers that the threat is not credible or about Havre de Grace schools.”

Petz said extra officers were at the high school “just as a precaution.”

Two days earlier, on Tuesday evening, the Sheriff’s Office was notified of a possible threat made by a student against Harford Tech, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Deputies interviewed the student who allegedly made the statements that were considered to be suspicious, as well as his family members, and they were determined not to be credible, Cristie Kahler, director of media relations for the Sheriff’s Office, said.

“Based on investigative information, the young man [to whom] the threats were attributed made no statements of suspicion or direct threats,” Kahler said.

The investigation originated at Harford Tech where the student in question attends school, Kahler said.

The possible threat to North Harford, she said, could have been a reiteration of the initial comments others posted on social media.

Because of the possible threats and out of “an abundance of caution,” additional deputies were stationed at both school when students reported Wednesday morning, Kahler said. As time permitted, patrol deputies would also make additional checks at other schools throughout the day, she said.

Social media

Both Kahler and Lader warned against the misuse of social media and asked parents for their support.

“We need your help to stem the spread of unfounded rumors by talking with your child about responsible social media used as rumors originate and perpetuate in that forum and can cause undue stress on the school community,” Lader said in the email.

Misuse of social media could result in school discipline and serious legal consequences, Lader said.

“Under no circumstances will Harford County Public Schools tolerate anyone creating a climate of fear for our students, families and staff,” she said in a recorded phone call to parents Tuesday morning.

Kahler and Lader urged parents and students to “if you see something, say something.”

If they’re aware of suspicious comments or threat, they should be reported immediately, Kahler said. Simply sharing information, or repeating comments on social media does not help an investigation, she said.

“It’s important to tell someone at the time you hear it before it has time to evolve into something else and hinders the investigation,” Kahler said.

They can be reported to a school resource officer or school administrator, so an investigation can begin immediately, Kahler said.

School safety

The school administration expects that the general safety and security practices are followed by all stakeholders who work in or visit county schools, Canavan wrote in the letter posted on the schools’ website.

All exterior doors are to remain locked throughout the school day and access to buildings is controlled, and visitors must enter the school by going through the front office, provide identification, sign in and wear a visitor badge during their time in the building, Canavan said.

Critical incident drills are practiced throughout the year, and parents and guardians can review the school system’s “Evacuation Drills and Fire Safety” policy via the “HCPS Procedures & Board Policies” button on our homepage, www.hcps.org.

The school resource officer program works collaboratively with the administration’s Office of Safety and Security on a daily basis.

Other aspects of the school system’s overall security program are not seen by the general public “but which go a long way in helping make our buildings secure,” Canavan wrote.

“We are not at liberty to discuss these aspects because they involve information we do not want to share with potential perpetrators. We work very closely with the Harford County Sheriff’s Department and municipal law enforcement agencies to help keep schools safe and secure,” Canavan wrote.

She said the school system is conducting a full review of its safety and security plans as well as its training to ensure it is maximizing efforts to prevent a tragedy.

“Remember, one of our greatest resources is you. Please have conversations at home and at work to help us secure our schools. Please provide information about issues that may be brewing in your school or your community and continue to be alert and attentive students, staff and parents/guardians,” Canavan wrote. “We cannot know everything and we rely on you to partner with us in our efforts to keep our schools safe. If you see something, say something.”

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