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FBI to Washington students: Hoax threats aren’t a joke

Glacier Peak High School had to go on lock down multiple times during the 2015 - 2016 school year because of hoax threats. A former student was ultimately arrested. (Glacier Peak High School, Facebook)

Students in Western Washington are headed back to classes after a violent summer with shootings in Ohio, Texas, and California — among others — claiming dozens of lives.

It’s well documented that, after mass tragedies, there’s a higher risk of threats of copycat violence targeting public places like schools. The FBI estimates there are thousands of “hoax threats” made nationally every year, and the agency wants to warn students how dangerous they are.

“A hoax threat is considered a verbal or written threat, typically posted to social media, to attack a school, staff members, students,” said Steven Bernd with Seattle’s FBI office.

Not only are they potentially scary for the people involved, but hoax threats can waste a huge amount of police resources. There’s the initial response, which can include surrounding and sweeping the school for dangerous people or devices. Depending on the severity of the threat and how well the origin is disguised, Bernd says a significant amount of manpower could be used on the follow-up investigation when it could be devoted to another crime.

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While each state has its own statute, the federal prohibition against “threatening interstate communications,” is broad by design. It can be almost anything — a social media post, a text message, an email. It doesn’t have to be a credible threat. A hoax threat could be a message scrawled on a bathroom wall.

That’s something we’ve seen locally.

Over the 2015 – 2016 school year, Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish County was locked down regularly because of threats. Some were written notes left on bathroom floors. Law enforcement had to clear the school room-by-room to make sure there was no danger to students. The administration ultimately restricted students’ movements and had staff patrol bathrooms until they caught a student believed to be responsible for at least three of the threats.

Hoax threats and consequences

The FBI generally doesn’t discuss individual cases or investigations, but Bernd did say that a hoax threat could land someone in prison for up to five years. The penalty is much stiffer if someone is hurt as a result of the investigation.

In 2016, a volunteer firefighter in South Carolina was sentenced to more than a year in prison after he used an app to send anonymous threats. He confessed, saying he hoped other fire stations would be too busy to take emergency calls and that his unit get the experience instead. He also had to pay back the money spent to investigate the false alarm.

In 2015, a teen in Houston, Texas was sentenced to three years in prison for a series of online threats and “swatting” incidents.

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In his experience, Bernd says students make hoax threats to get out of assignments, because of distress and fear, or to gain notoriety.

But it’s a fine line between a hoax and a real threat, and law enforcement has to investigate every incident, every time.

Bernd says the public should also report threats, no matter how innocuous they may seem. No member of the public will get in trouble for reporting something that doesn’t result in an arrest, as long as the report is the result of a serious concern.

“You don’t want to be that one time where you’re skeptical and don’t report, and then something does happen. Because school shootings appear in the national news. Hoax threats might not,” Bernd said.

Someone caught for a hoax threat could be getting the intervention they need to stop future violence.

“This person might need help themselves. This is something that is taken very seriously by the FBI because we want to keep the public safe,” Bernd said.

Each field office has victim’s services advocates, which may be a resource even for a suspect. Counseling could be part of their sentencing.

Hoax threats can be terrifying for students, staff, and parents, and disruptive to the learning environment. They can drain taxpayer dollars, and put the person responsible in jail. Hoaxes can also desensitize the public to the point that it’s hard to spot an imminent threat.

The bottom line, says Bernd: “Think before you post. There are real-life consequences to making a threat. A hoax is not a prank. It’s a federal crime.”

Report any threat or suspicious activity by:

  • Calling 911
  • Calling the FBI Seattle Division at 206-622-0460
  • Submitting an anonymous online tip to tips.fbi.gov

By Jillian Raftery, KIRO Radio

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