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Pasco County schools see surge in student online threats

The district has seen 13 threat-related arrests so far this year, compared to four all last year.

Pasco County school district leaders say they’re at wit’s end about how to deal with kids who make “joke” threats of violence against schools and school employees.

The Nov. 1 arrest of Nicholas R. Godfrey for seeking a hitman on Instagram to kill a Fivay High staff member marked the 13th felony arrest this academic year of a Pasco County student related to school threats, superintendent Kurt Browning told the School Board on Tuesday.

Only four students were taken into custody for similar charges last year, he said.

Related: <b>RELATED: </b> Pasco teen said he was joking when he solicited a hitman to kill a Fivay High staffer

The incidents mushroom in Pasco and across the state, and yet the message that it’s a crime with serious consequences seems not to get through.

In statements to the board, and in a recently posted YouTube video, Browning said it is incumbent upon parents and the community to help children understand that each threat is taken seriously — even if it’s not made seriously.

“It is time for this community to stand up and say we will not take this kind of behavior any more," Browning said in his 3-minute online message. “It is a community problem, and it is having a serious negative impact on our schools.”

Noting many parents have professed not to know what their children are up to, Browning encouraged parents to monitor their online activities.

“You are not violating their rights if you get onto their telephone and see what’s on there,” he said during comments to the School Board.

He offered the Bark app as one possibility for parents to use to keep tabs on their children’s internet interactions.

He also urged adults to better model appropriate online behavior, such as stopping angrily attacking others and spreading unconfirmed rumors.

“The Sheriff’s Office and school leaders have had to spend too much time responding to rumors and mostly unfounded threats, and until everyone sees this as the crisis that it is, our community will suffer,” Browning said.

With the rise in this type of arrest, there also has been a growing counter narrative that society has moved too quickly to criminalize behavior that is not a true threat, harming children’s futures.

Related: <b>RELATED: </b> The False Alarms That Get Kids Arrested, from The Atlantic

In the current fearful climate after murderous school rampages in Florida, Texas and other spots, though, the general posture is to react to each threat as if it were real.

“We have to protect the most valuable things we have, our children,” Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said at a news conference announcing Godfrey’s arrest. “There is going to be zero tolerance.”

School Board members praised Browning for sending out his latest message, and said they hope at some point kids will see that even threats of violence are no joke.