Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

Pasco student's fake stabbing report triggers Twitter panic

WESLEY CHAPEL — In the middle of lunchtime, a 14-year-old Wesley Chapel High freshman approached a teacher and said another student had stabbed her, revealing a hole in her shirt and a bleeding inch-wide cut to her abdomen. She saw the other student regularly, she said, but didn't know his name. And he and his knife were somewhere on campus.

Lunch is arguably the worst time to have — or to think you have — an assailant on campus, said Lt. James Law, Youth Services section commander for the Pasco Sheriff's Office. Students are out of class, congregated in a large area. They run around or bunch together and there is no order. Corralling them into a safe place can be tough.

The teacher rushed to find student resource officer Ben Beson, who immediately put Wesley Chapel High, and three adjacent schools, on lockdown. The girl was sent to the nurse with wounds that would later be described in reports as "superficial" — and self-inflicted.

Deputies determined she used a pen top to slice herself, out of vengeance and to get attention.

But before that was known, crisis mode took hold.

Students crammed into the cafeteria. In-car radios lit up for every law enforcement officer in the area. Between 15 and 20 patrol cars pulled up to the school within minutes. Deputies, corporals and other school resource officers swept the campus.

"If there's even the slightest indication of a suspect on campus, we're going to lock down the campus immediately," Law said.

And the students, stuck in captivity, took to their touchscreens.

When students, and anyone, are trapped in emergency situations without explanation, said Pasco School District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe, they use their smartphones like a submarine's periscope. They scan their Twitter feeds for anything that will tell them what's happening. They text their parents.

This has become so commonplace that Cobbe says she is briefed on minor incidents like fire drills so she can field calls from concerned parents.

The tweets from Wesley Chapel on Jan. 24 started vague and ominous.

"Prayers go out to all Wesley Chapel High students," wrote Emily Vandeberg, a Zephyrhills High School student.

With information still sparse, Twitter users tried to gather what they could.

"Wesley Chapel High is on lockdown. Anyone know WhatsUp?" tweeted @WhatsUpDubC, an account that bills itself as "Your source for all things business and entertainment in Wesley Chapel, FL."

One person tweeted to Bay News 9, asking what happened.

After news outlets got hold of the story, and while students were still in lockdown, Twitter users reached a consensus that a student had been stabbed. And that it was a girl.

Unconfirmed information passed as fact. Falsehoods filled-in for uncertainty and morphed narratives.

"Prayers to wesley chapel high school," tweeted @DAG_soccer, "a freshman stabbed a girl and she was airlifted out, he has a gun and was arrested but got loose."

In reality, the freshman girl was taken into one of the school's administrative offices for questioning. Her mother was there. The girl confessed to deputies that she was lying and that she hoped to get another student in trouble because she didn't like him.

"Ultimately," Law said, "it was attention-seeking behavior."

Deputies were called off the hunt. The students finished the school day on lockdown and left, classroom by classroom, in controlled dismissal. Buses were delayed a half hour.

The girl was arrested on a charge of making a false report to law enforcement and three charges of disrupting a school campus. She was booked into the Land O'Lakes juvenile assessment center.

Around 3:30 p.m., another flurry of tweets, beginning with news outlets and others linking to news stories, reflected that farce.

Adding a link to a story by Fox 13, @Savannah0212 tweeted simply, "she made it all up."

Later that afternoon, Cobbe went on Facebook and Twitter to quell the furor.

"There are many rumors on social media about an incident at Wesley Chapel High School," she wrote on the district's Facebook page. "A student has a superficial wound and has not been transported to the hospital. At this time there is no indication that another student was involved. The Sheriff's Office continues to investigate, but all schools are out of lockdown. All Wesley Chapel High School students have been dismissed."

Parents jumped on the comments section asking why they weren't notified by the school. Cobbe says she recorded an automated alert message to call parents and tell them the school was in a lockdown, but it was never sent because the district has some parent cell phone numbers, but not all.

"The lack of communication," one woman wrote on the Facebook page, "was worse than the actual event."

Normally, Cobbe said, the alert calls go out to parents whenever a school is in lockdown, even if the cause happens to be fake. Sometimes, a lockdown lasts just a few minutes, and administrators don't have time to record and send a message because they are tending to students. In those cases, a recorded call will go out, telling parents the school has been in a lockdown.

Either way, she said, "they want to know."

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