TAMPA — As students react to a mass school shooting in Connecticut while winding down for winter break, some are trafficking in alarming rumors about campus violence.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the school district's security staff have been busy since Sunday chasing stories about potential trouble — some of the reports mentioning shootings — in at least eight schools.
"The sheriff made it very clear we're going to investigate every one of these," said sheriff's Cpl. Jason Napoli of the agency's school resources section.
Similar stories are spreading in Pinellas County. On both sides of the bay, much of the chatter is focused on a mythical apocalypse Friday, supposedly based on a calendar devised by ancient Mayans.
Threats have been posted on Facebook and other social media sites, and sent in mass text messages that make it hard to track the sender.
"It's like wildfire the way it spreads," Napoli said. "One or two kids to dozens in minutes. Maybe even hundreds."
In Pinellas, rumors have named at least four high schools and a middle school. Clearwater spokeswoman Joelle Castelli said the Police Department was told by school officials Tuesday about a rumored "attack" on Tarpon Springs High School by Countryside High School students Friday.
Castelli said police went to Countryside and spoke to four students allegedly involved. The students "said it was all blown out of proportion," Castelli said. She said police determined there was no assault planned.
In Hillsborough, two rumored threats have resulted in arrests. A 15-year-old Armwood High student created a fake Facebook page and sent a message to her real profile, threatening to bring a gun to school and harm people, the Sheriff's Office said. She was arrested last Friday.
A 13-year-old Farnell Middle student was arrested Tuesday after the Sheriff's Office said he wrote graffiti on his driveway that read, "From Con to FL Farnell UR Next!!"
Bullets have also been found this week on two Hillsborough school buses.
Napoli declined to name any Hillsborough schools that are the subject of rumors to avoid generating even more talk.
Schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said she hopes the talk will settle down, although she understands students become restless as vacation approaches.
"We're trying to have normal school," Cobbe said. "We want to tell the kids to concentrate on their studies."
Counselors are available, she said, if any students have trouble coping with news of last Friday's shooting at a Connecticut school that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults.
In the meantime, an increased police and security presence that began on Monday at Hillsborough campuses will continue and intensify on Friday, including additional attention at the schools mentioned in the rumors.
"They will be in and around our schools, but they may not be obvious," Cobbe said. "They may be in plain clothes or in an unmarked car."
Tampa police Sgt. Kert Rojka said his department will increase coverage Friday, as it routinely does before students go on break.