Utah public safety officials respond to spike in ‘jokes’ about school shootings by making arrests and planning an awareness campaign

As talk of school shootings and gun violence has flooded the news after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Florida high school, students across the nation have responded in starkly different ways.

Some of the survivors of the shooting have become activists, lobbying state and federal lawmakers for changes in gun laws. Students at schools around the country are planning to partake in a nationwide walkout on March 24 to bring awareness to gun violence. And on Friday, West High School students took to the Capitol to urge legislators to pass gun control legislation.

But some students have had a less constructive reaction.

In the past week, law enforcement and school officials throughout Utah have responded to a handful of students taking to social media to make what initially appear to be threats involving gun violence.

Those apparent threats have all proven to be bad jokes, an adolescent response to a serious issue, according to police.

But officials are nevertheless taking a “no tolerance” stance.

After a report of a Sunday threat involving a student at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera announced the department was launching an awareness campaign to let students know they could face time in a juvenile detention facility for what they thought was humorous.

Unified police Lt. Brian Lohrke said the campaign is still in the early stages, but will include a social media component and potentially an educational video. Lohrke said the department has been in contact with the Granite School District about the campaign.

“This is getting ridiculous now, and so that’s why we are talking about it,” Lohrke said.

The Sunday threat involved a 13-year-old boy posting a picture of himself with a gun on Snapchat, warning fellow Thomas Jefferson students to not attend school Monday. The gun was found to be a pellet gun, and the threat a joke.

Police launching an investigation into a supposed joke might be a learning experience for the student in its own right, but violent threats can have more lasting implications. Police said a student may be charged with making a terroristic threat, which can be charged as a class B misdemeanor, a second-degree felony or a third-degree felony.

The terroristic threat statute was used against a Springville student last week, even though the threat was determined to be a joke.

High school students in Heber and Orem also made threats over Snapchat last week. Police investigated and found the threats to not be serious, but still recommended charges.

And while some teens aren’t taking gun violence seriously, others are finding the threats worrisome. In the recent spate of threats, some of the student recipients were the reporters of the perceived threats.

Students have a variety of ways to report a perceived danger to authorities. In addition to taking to parents, teachers or police, kids can now report threats, or other crises, digitally.

The SafeUT app, developed by the University of Utah, allows people to call or anonymously text in to report something or talk with a clinician any hour of the day. The app is used to report school threats as well as bullying, suicide, cutting and other trauma facing American teens.

Use of the app is on the rise. Data from the U. show 19,000 conversations with Utah students since January 2016. According to a tweet from the Utah Attorney General’s Office, the app was downloaded 12,000 times in the past week.

The tweet said the app fielded 25 purported school threats in the past week.

Amber Montero, the lead clinical social worker for SafeUT, said the bulk of what is reported through the app consists of bullying, depression, suicide or self-harm. But she said the app is used to report a significant number of purported school threats as well.

As clinicians, the job is not to determine what is or isn’t a credible threat, Montero said, but to get information to authorities when the threat sounds potentially dangerous.

Montero said police rarely report back on what happened during the investigation, so it isn’t clear how much danger the app is preventing. But she said it is clear that the app provides a platform where students can comfortably report what they hear without being worried about the validity of their hunch or being identified.

“I’m seeing a lot of students saying I would rather be safe than sorry,” Montero said. “We would much rather a student report something they heard than not. Maybe it’s not credible, but at least they reported what they heard.”

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