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Fake threats toward Harford County schools require time, resources, money to investigate

A few days before winter break was over, an Aberdeen Middle School student contacted the school resource officer to report she got a message that a bomb was going to go off at the school the day students returned to class. It turned out to be a hoax.

Earlier in December, two Aberdeen Middle eighth-graders were charged with creating a fake threat that the school was going to be shot up the next day.

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In December, a 15-year-old Patterson Mill High School student allegedly made threats of violence toward the school community through a series of text messages. He was arrested without carrying out the threat.

The December threats came after a number of others last school year. While none of them were deemed credible, any one of them could have been. Law enforcement takes each one seriously — costing time and resources — and has seen the expanding role social media plays in either carrying the threat or spreading it.

“I am always ‘worried’ that every new threat or concerning post will lead down a path where there is a true threat to public safety,” Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said. “I think it is part of any sheriff’s or chief’s job to do that worrying and, much like parents, we approach everything from a worst case scenario until there is good cause to lessen our level of concern.”

He has no illusion that Harford is immune to the worst acts imaginable and accordingly, the Sheriff’s Office trains to respond, investigate and handle these types of horrific incidents if and when called upon, Gahler said.

“I worry that every threat may be the real deal,” Sgt. Brian O’Neil, the school policing supervisor for the Sheriff’s Office, said.

Non-credible threats are being made across the country, said Lt. Will Reiber of Aberdeen Police Department, which investigated the Aberdeen Middle School threats.

“History has proven time and again that no community is off-limits or immune from attack,” Reiber said.

Every. Single. Time.

Law enforcement and school officials are going to investigate every threat they receive.

“There are some serious people out there and you have to respond the same way, to find needle in a haystack, that one in a million,” Gahler said. “We have to treat every single one the same and just as serious as the next.”

Threat investigations vary greatly, he said. In some cases, school and law enforcement officials could look into a threat and eliminate it very quickly. Others could require a home visit or other investigative tools.

While the extent of the investigations varies, they still consume time and resources, taking people away from other responsibilities, Gahler said.

Reiber estimated it cost law enforcement and school system personnel about $5,000 to investigate the bomb threat at Aberdeen Middle over the winter break.

“Each time we have an investigation, our resources are tied up, and we can’t be doing the jobs we’re out here to do,” Reiber said. “It’s not a joke, it has real consequences. That’s the message we’re trying to get across.”

Arms of social media

Social media plays a significant role in these threats. Not only are most of the threats made through social media, word of the threats is spread on social media by parents and students and can fuel the frenzy and concern.

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Students and parents are reminded about the impact of social media when threats arise.

“They don’t realize with social media how far it’s going out, the arms of social media reach so far and so many people,” O’Neil said. “And how fast.”

That social media sharing can hinder an investigation, police said.

“I’m sure people thing that by sharing, they’re doing a favor,” Gahler said. “They’re actually just complicating the investigation.”

It’s also a means of making threats.

O’Neil pointed to the incident last year at Harford Tech, in which a threat started in Pennsylvania then copied and pasted and Tech’s name was somehow attached to it.

“It originated outside Maryland, but it trickled way down here,” O’Neil said.

That threat set off an investigation into the source and was ultimately deemed non-credible.

Brooks posed a situation more abstract: Someone in Maryland says something will happen at BHS. That could mean a lot of schools — Baltimore City, Bel Air — in Maryland and even more across the country.

Most of the time they don’t understand the seriousness of what they’re doing, Gahler said.

“They’re saying something and in most cases they’re not being serious, but they don’t understand how serious it’s going to be treated and has to be treated,” he said.

Law enforcement also asks parents to talk to their kids, to make sure they know they will be held responsible if they make a threat, and that their actions have consequences, Brooks said.

Those consequences — on academics, extracurricular activities, family life — can be severe.

“All that stuff can be thrown out the window because you wanted to make a poor decision about threats,” Brooks said.

Respond to them all

While most school directed threats do turn out to be hoaxes, police say they can’t not investigate.

“The minute we become complacent, something happens,” Reiber said. “We treat each threat seriously. And the resources necessary to vet that threat, we’re going to exhaust them. The frustration comes when we find out it’s false.”

“While the threats we have received have not come to fruition, we will continue to investigate every threat as though it is real, and not a hoax,” Brooks said.

The school system will work with law enforcement partners to learn from events outside of the community to take appropriate security steps in Harford County Public Schools.

“We are taking action on multiple things, like ACRT training, to provide our staff and students with as much information as possible should they find themselves in an active assailant situation — in or outside of school,” Brooks said.

Just because a threat might not be valid doesn’t mean students shouldn’t report it. If they see something, they should say something, school and law enforcement officials said.

“We don’t want things to play out and happen, then have someone come to us and say I heard about that, but didn’t pay attention,” Brooks said. “As lightly as we don’t take it, we don’t want them to take it lightly either.”

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Before sharing on social media, however, students are urged to say something to an adult first, whether it be a teacher, school resource office or anyone else in their school building.

“We don’t want to stifle people from bringing us information. No dollar amount is worth risking someone’s safety,” Reiber said. “We can’t become passive in the way we go about doing this, because at the end of the day, public safety comes first. We can’t become complacent.”

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