‘Education has definitely been impacted’: Hoax bomb threats plague Nebo school after ‘furry’ outrage

The threats started April 19, two days after video of Mt. Nebo middle schoolers protesting “furries” began spreading in conservative social media circles.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nebo School District spokesperson Seth Sorensen speaks during a news conference at the Payson Police Department to address recent hoax bomb threats targeting Mt. Nebo Middle School in Payson on Wednesday, May 1, 2024.

In the two weeks since video of a student-led “furry” protest at Mt. Nebo Middle School spread in conservative social media circles, the school has received multiple hoax bomb threats that officials believe are tied to viral “furry outrage” stoked by the posts.

“Students’ education has definitely been impacted,” said Nebo School District spokesperson Seth Sorenson during a joint news conference Wednesday with Payson police. “However, we’re committed as a district to maintain a stable situation for all of our students.”

That’s why district officials announced Wednesday that they intend to keep the school open for the remainder of the academic year, despite the significant learning disruptions.

The bogus threats started April 19, two days after video depicting Mt. Nebo middle schoolers walking out of school began to circulate on far-right social media, with posts claiming the students were protesting because the district was allowing student “furries” to “terrorize” other students.

“Students claim that the furries bite them, bark at them, and pounce on them without repercussion,” one post read from Libs of TikTok, an account on X that shares anti-LGBTQ posts and other clips geared at generating right-wing outrage. “However, if they defend themselves in any way, they get in trouble.”

Sorenson asserted those claims were false, explaining that the student protest seemed to be organized after a message the school sent to families was misinterpreted. Sorenson has also said students at the middle school are not wearing full-body animal costumes to class, as “furries” — part of a subculture of people who sometimes dress up like animal characters but act like humans — are known to do.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mt. Nebo Middle School in Payson on Thursday, April 18, 2024.

Two other subsequent hoax threats came to the school on April 23 and April 30, police said Wednesday. The Payson Police Department canvased the school with bomb detection dogs but found no devices or other materials.

After the April 30 threat was cleared, school officials allowed families to pick up their children early from Mt. Nebo. About 70% of students were picked up early that day, Sorenson said.

Payson police alongside federal law enforcement continue to investigate the hoax threats but have not yet identified who may be behind them.

“If we identify suspects, they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Payson police Sgt. Scott Hall said Wednesday.

That could include charging perpetrators with a second-degree felony after HB14 passed during this year’s legislative session, making falsely reporting an emergency at school a felony. If the perpetrator is found to be a public school student, the law mandates that they be suspended or expelled.

The district in the meantime has employed additional counseling resources for students who may be experiencing increased anxiety due to the threats, Sorenson said. More adult supervisors are also patrolling the school’s hallways, and extra police will remain on campus for the rest of the school year.

“Student safety is our top priority,” Sorenson said. “We want students to be safe and secure. And we want parents to feel confident sending their students to our schools, knowing that they’re going to be safe and protected.”

What led to the ‘furry’ protest, outrage

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mt. Nebo Middle School in Payson on Thursday, April 18, 2024.

The message that Sorenson believes led to the April 17 student protest came after a group of students had been targeting another group of students at the school, saying things “that were overheard by others that the administration felt were inappropriate and shouldn’t be said,” Sorenson has said.

The group of students being targeted, he said, sometimes come to school wearing headbands “that may have ears on them.” He said he doesn’t think the targeted students necessarily refer to themselves as “furries.”

In one specific instance, the targeted students “were sitting in a corner of the lunchroom, eating as a group of friends” when others began calling them names and throwing food at them “because they were dressed differently,” Sorenson told The Salt Lake Tribune.

After word of the altercation spread, the initial message sent to families stated, “We expect ALL students to be respectful towards each other while we are here at school.”

“We hope you will treat others how you would like to be treated,” the message stated. “Outstanding behavior might demonstrate curiosity, understanding, patience and tolerance.”

The message also reiterated the school’s dress code policy as well as the school’s policy against written, verbal, or physical acts that stand to threaten, humiliate or abuse others.

But Sorenson said he thinks some parents misinterpreted the note, incorrectly taking it as a message that the school was “taking the side of a single group, saying, ‘We want you to be kind to this group, but they don’t have to be kind to anyone else.’”

“Nobody was taking the side of one group or another,” he said. “What we were saying is everyone needs to treat everyone else with respect.”

A few days later, the school sent another message to parents, trying to clarify its original note.

“We have had several parents reach out to us over the past few days, regarding rumors that are being spread about behaviors of a small group of students at our school,” the message read. “We hoped our efforts to clarify misconceptions would be sufficient, but it seems we still have some misunderstandings.”

The note concluded with an acknowledgement of rumored plans of the April 17 walkout protest.