Years ago, a bully and their gangs had to carry out their intimidation face-to-face, or maybe they could pick up a telephone and say or do things to one person.
Social media has changed the playing field for everyone — students, teachers, principals, school district officials and police. The number of threats issued has jumped in just the last three years, leaving those who have to answer to them coming up with new strategies to combat them.
Last week, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has announced a new campaign addressing school threats made by students in Florida. The “It’s No Joke” campaign is out to deter such threats by making one subject to arrest and being charged with a felony.
This comes on the heels of a pair of Horizon Middle School students, who were taken into custody for threatening fellow students by posting a “safe” list and a “stab” list of those they intended to hurt on social media. It earned them a booking into the Juvenile Detention Center in Orlando.
Statements made online that threaten physical harm, whether seriously intended or not, can have devastating consequences, so the “It’s No Joke” initiative seeks to educate youth and parents that these threats can saddle students with felony criminal record at a young age.
“We want young people in Florida to understand that, in today’s environment, every threat is taken very seriously and, even if made in jest, can lead to devastating consequences,” said Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Simone Marstiller. “There is nothing funny about threatening a school, and there is nothing funny about being charged with a felony. We want young people to think twice before casually threatening violence in their schools.”
Police treat no threat as a false threat, and no threat is too small to be reported. Students are encouraged to notify law enforcement immediately if they see a threat, if they can’t or already contacted a parent or teacher. And there’s a new way to report a threat anonymously: the FortifyFL app, backed by the FDLE, a suspicious activity reporting tool from where suspicious activity can be instantly relayed to local law enforcement agencies and school officials.
School District of Osceola County Superintendent Dr. Debra Pace said “It’s No Joke” is designed to show how significant a threat, even if made as a joke, will be taken in the future.
“We want students and parents and the community to say something if they see something online that looks like a credible threat directed toward any of our schools,” she said. “This is not a joke. This is a a life-changing felony offense. This takes up so much of our resources. It’s about being responsible with our online presence, it stays with us forever.”
Osceola County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Maj. Jacob Ruiz said speed of these threats getting out is a factor with new technology, but the agency has resources to stay proactive.
“It seems every student at middle school or higher has a cellphone or a device, and it’s easy to mask your identity,” he said. “And then we see copycat incidents after we get a significant threat. “We have back-room agencies that can track threats from other states and see if they become localized.”
Capt. James Spain, head of the Sheriff’s School Safety Division, noted the many platforms students, parents and teachers can report threats anonymously, like FortifyFL and Crimeline, and also report what they see and hear their school’s Student Resource Officer.
“The general atmosphere about encouraging reporting suspicious activity is so much better now,” Spain said. “Any time we get a call, even in the evening or on the weekend, we can increase a presence in the school in question. We’re forging great relationships with school, the school district and Lester Yeates, their director of security.”