Saturday, June 23, 2018
Education

Palm Harbor University High targeted by two threats — both unfounded — on social media

PALM HARBOR — Two separate, though unfounded, school shooting threats related to Palm Harbor University High School led to increased security on campus this week.

Last week, a male student at Palm Harbor referenced a school shooting on Facebook, though did not specifically mention his school, said Cpl. Spencer Gross, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Other students notified a school resource officer, who contacted the Sheriff's Office.

Investigators conducted a threat assessment with the student and his parents, and authorities deemed the Facebook post not credible, Gross said.

But through the teenage rumor mill, a second threat surfaced early this week that made it look like the Pinellas County Schools website had been hacked.

In images spread around social media, "School Shooting at Palm Harbor University" appeared beside the calendar for Nov. 17 in the Upcoming Events column. Under the Latest News tab, the phrase "PHU SCHOOL SHOOTING UPDATE" was written. And beneath that, these words: "There is a 95% chance students will die tomorrow. You're a s----- parent if your kids at school."

Sheriff's investigators, however, determined that the website was not affected. Someone had taken a screen shot of the home page, then used a computer program to alter its appearance. Whoever edited the screen shot then took a photo on the social media application Snapchat and distributed it widely.

"Once you put it out on Snapchat, it's contagious," Gross said.

The challenge for law enforcement: Snapchat erases the photo once it is viewed, making it difficult to track the original sender.

"It was deemed to not be any credible threat," Gross said. "But the damage had already been done."

On Monday and Tuesday, additional sheriff's deputies were on the Palm Harbor University campus, said Lisa Wolf, the Pinellas County Schools spokeswoman. The school also was on lockout all Tuesday, which means outside visitors were not permitted.

Thomas Acuna, a junior at the high school, attended classes Tuesday.

"I learned about (the threats) at lunch (Monday)," he said. "Like most of the students, I saw it on Facebook. Last night, I talked about it at home, and we didn't think it was true, didn't think anything was going to happen, so I came to school. It was really quiet."

School officials sent out a message to parents last week informing them of the unfounded threat and increased security. A second message was sent out Monday night.

After receiving the Monday night message, Bob Lasseter decided to keep his granddaughter, a sophomore, home Tuesday.

"I just felt like since they had to be so cautious, we'd just keep her home," Lasseter, 69, said.

Lasseter said that when he drove past the school about 10 a.m. Tuesday, he counted eight cruisers parked at the school.

"That's a lot of cars," he said. "If they needed to have that many there, they really should have closed the school for the day."

Gross said there will be an increased security presence at the school until the incident is resolved.

Staff writer Piper Castillo contributed to this report. Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.

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