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Hillsborough officials announce effort to stop fake school threats

More than a dozen have been logged since classes began on Aug. 12.

TAMPA — Students are posting and reposting false threats of violence in schools, and it’s not at all funny, officials said Wednesday.

Seeking to curb that behavior, leaders of Hillsborough County’s police agencies and the FBI joined school superintendent Jeff Eakins Wednesday to deliver a joint message: Think before you post.

“It’s not a joke, and there are serious consequences,” Eakins said. “We have so much important business to do every day, and we can’t be taking our resources for this.”

Officials cited differing statistics, depending on the jurisdiction.

Maj. Thomas St. John of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said in this school year alone, his agency has been called to investigate 23 school-based threats so far.

Eakins, citing a new telephone app called Fortify Florida, said there have been 14 reports in Hillsborough that required school and law enforcement officials to investigate.

“All 14 have been bogus hoaxes, or people trying to be funny,” he said.

Sheriff’s officials reported one arrest on Aug. 22 of a seventh-grader from Burns Middle School who spread a shooting threat on Snapchat. The child faces felony charges, and officials said Wednesday they will prosecute other such felonies under a new state law that followed the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Broward County.

No one addressed the issue of why there might be a spike in false reports. But the panel of officials made the case that false threats consume resources that they cannot afford to waste.

“We’re putting our first responders at danger, we’re putting our victims at danger, and those limited resources are not being put where they need to be,” said Michael McPherson, the agent in charge of the FBI’s Tampa field office. “We don’t know what’s a joke. We’re going to treat them all serious. If it’s a threat, we’re going to mitigate it. If it’s a hoax, there will be consequences.”

St. John and Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan — who gave a similar warning in private to his son, a high school senior — urged parents and students to learn the correct protocol: Report any threat, or perceived threat, to a school employee or law enforcement officer instead of spreading the information on social medial.

“If you see something, say something,” Dugan said. “But also be careful about what you say and what you post.”

School officials said they planned to reinforce the warning with an electronic messages to parents later in the day.

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