Slew of copycat threats across metro region trouble administrators, parents

·6 min read

Waves of chaos continued to descend upon metro Detroit on Thursday, two days after the rampage at Oxford High School that left four students dead and seven others injured.

With copycat threats circulating on social media, districts in Oakland County and beyond canceled classes out of caution for students' safety. Law enforcement leaders continued to emphasize the severity with which they will pursue all reports of threats.

But behind the goose chase of threats and social media rumors of a "hit week" are parents who are walking a fine line of ensuring their children's security without affecting their kids' mental and emotional health.

"I felt like I was going to throw up," said Jill Dillon, 51, of Canton, recalling dropping off her 14-year-old son to school Wednesday morning. "It was nauseating, thinking that I'm supposed to be taking him someplace safe, and is he really going to be safe?"

It's a mix of emotions to process, Dillion said. The thoughts never stop racing through her mind, she said, but pause at the reasoning: Statistically, the chances of a school shooting happening at Canton High School — where her son attends — are low, but not impossible.

"When something happens this close to home, it brings it closer to your heart and makes you really wonder, how safe are we?"

More: Oxford shooting deaths include honor student, athletes and artist

More: Oxford superintendent posts public message days after deadly shooting

Reining in these worries, Dillon said she instead focuses on conversations with her son, Aidan, and practical advice, like staying alert of his surroundings and following his teachers' instructions, imparted through active shooter drills.

"It's not necessarily about location, or what the school is or isn't doing — it's about an individual or individuals," she said. "It's unrealistic to think it can't happen in your community because it certainly can."

At 1:08 a.m., Novi Community Schools Assistant Superintendent R.J. Webber woke up to his phone ringing nonstop: It was a call concerning copycat threats being made toward nearby districts. He spent the rest of the night and morning discussing student safety and strategizing the best course of action.

"I've done this (been an educator) for 30 years and this is the first day I've had where we're off school for a reason that no parent was equipped or ready to explain why," Webber said.

Administrators nationwide — even globally — have been stretched thin for nearly two years, between keeping students healthy during a pandemic and devastating staffing shortages, and now Michigan educators are having to face guiding students through another crisis. Not to mention the long-term, lasting impact all this has on students, Webber said.

"We're already seeing behavioral struggles with kids because of the trauma of the pandemic, and now we have this," he said. "The fall of 2021 has been, hands-down, the most difficult four to five months of my educational career," Webber said, adding that he has taught in prisons and in Africa.

Various districts declined Free Press request for comment, saying that administrators were head-down in meetings reviewing safety procedures and strategizing a return to the classroom.

In communications with students and staff, messages from superintendents contained similar advice: Closings were out of an abundance of caution; threats should be reported to law enforcement; and to stop circulating threats on social media.

The flood of threats across the region was far-reaching, with some being suspicious posts online, others tangible.

On Thursday, a 17-year-old Southfield student with a semi-automatic pistol was arrested and a bomb threat was made at South Lake High School, prompting a police investigation. On Friday, a Flint student was charged with terrorism for making threats against Southwestern Classical Academy and state police flocked to Armada High School to investigate a threat that the school was "next" and students were sent home.

"I'm not going to try to figure out whether this incident in Flint today was intended to be a joke or whether it was a credible threat, the bottom line is that is a crime," Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said in a statement announcing the charges against the 17-year-old Flint student. "Michigan law specifically states that it is not a defense if the person did not have the intent or capability of following through on the threat."

In Detroit, a 13-year-old student with a bullet in his pocket brought an unloaded weapon to school at Regent Park Scholars Charter Academy, about an hour's drive away from Oxford High School, and was taken into police custody without incident.

Fruitport Community Schools, nearly 200 miles away from Oxford, were closed Friday after receiving a threat of violence in the morning.

"We understand the very real pressure and fear that our students are feeling and know that our parents and staff are equally concerned," Superintendent Jason Kennedy said in a statement. "We remain committed to our relationship with local law enforcement, who take every report or rumor seriously and investigate immediately."

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard speaks at a press conference regarding the threats to school following the Oxford High School shooting at Oakland County Sheriff Office in Pontiac on Dec. 2, 2021.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard speaks at a press conference regarding the threats to school following the Oxford High School shooting at Oakland County Sheriff Office in Pontiac on Dec. 2, 2021.

More: Student arrested after pistol found in pocket

“If you’re making threats, we’re going to find you,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said during a news conference Thursday, specifically called to address the estimated hundreds of copycat threats reported. “It is ridiculous you’re inflaming the fears and passion of parents, teachers, and the community in the midst of a real tragedy.”

Bouchard said the pursuit of threats has exhausted his office's resources but will continue nonetheless. He said he has enlisted the assistance of the FBI and Secret Service to tackle threats. This week has been the most challenging for FBI Detroit Special Agent Tim Waters, who has worked in the community for 21 years, he said during Thursday's conference.

In Macomb County, Prosecutor Peter Lucido echoed Bouchard's sentiments in a promise to prosecute threats to the fullest extent.

"Anyone thinking of issuing such a threat should know that as Macomb County Prosecutor, I have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to issuing terroristic threats against our schools, and if you do so you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Lucido said in a statement issued Thursday.

Despite the influx of threats, prosecutors encouraged residents to direct reports of threats to their offices, not to post on social media.

It's the confusion of what's real and what's not that's scariest for 14-year-old David Roden, a freshman at Northville High School, which stayed open Thursday.

"Everyone was on edge. It's just kind of weird, being close to the situation," he said, "because it's never been close to home, but this one's closer than they've (school shooting) ever been."

His social media sphere is flooded with rumors of more shootings, Snapchat screenshots, and blurry Instagram stories, promising that Tuesday's horror was just the beginning. But teachers are having open conversations in his classes, helping him and his classmates to parse the confirmed facts from the fake.

David's mom, Jodie, said she used to worry about her kids reaching school safely with her daughter, 16-year-old Emily, behind the wheel.

"It's sad that you're nervous sending them off to school and hoping that the person sitting next to them isn't the person that could, you know, do something to them," she said, laughing nervously.

Contact Miriam Marini: mmarini@freepress.com

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Oxford High School shooting copycat threats put everyone on edge

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