RICHMOND, Va. -- Law enforcement and school officials from various parts of Central Virginia have responded this week to a series of school threats, most of which were deemed "non-credible."
Hanover Sheriff's deputies alerted parents Friday morning to their presence at Bell Creek Middle School in Lee Davis Road in Mechanicsville. Later in the day, the sheriff's office provided the following update.
"Investigators have conducted numerous interviews and no credible threat has been found," the update read. "Throughout the day there will be an increased presence of deputies at our schools. We continue to encourage all parents to monitor their child’s social media activity as it appears these incidents started as a rumor while students were playing a video game."
Virginia State Police addressed similar threats that surfaced in Buckingham County, Virginia.
"The Virginia State Police, through the Virginia Fusion Center, has identified the out-of-state source of a social media threat associated with Buckingham County schools. The same threat has circulated on social media in other states, as well," Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller wrote in an email. "Due to the ongoing, multi-agency criminal investigation, the source of the threat is not being identified at this time. The threat has been deemed not credible."
The online threats come in the wake of a deadly school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan on November 30. In the days after that shooting, some Michigan schools decided to close as copycat threats emerged.
Some school systems in Virginia made similar decisions to forgo in-person learning for virtual school this week.
The Buckingham Sheriff's Office detailed its situation and thought process behind the decision to go virtual this week:
On Friday, December 3, (first incident) information was received by the School Resource Officer (SRO) that a student was going to bring a firearm to school. Both the SRO and School Officials investigated the matter finding no immediate threat.
On Monday, December 6, (second incident) information was received that two students had exchanged a firearm in the boy’s bathroom. Again, the SRO and School Officials immediately investigated and recovered a CO2 pellet pistol in a student’s book bag. As a result, two 10th graders were suspended from school with one receiving a criminal charge in violation of Virginia Code 18.2-308.1 (Possession of a Firearm on School Property). That juvenile awaits a future court hearing in Buckingham County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
On Tuesday, December 7 (third incident) information was received about a circulating group text message threatening violence at the end of day dismissal. Once again, the SRO and School Officials immediately increased security measures assuring the safety of all students. Later that evening, another threat of violence circulated on social media. Based on this new threat, School Officials made the decision to close schools to in-person learning and elected for virtual.
The principal of Wilder Middle School in Henrico sent an email to parents on Thursday addressing the disruption shared by threats shared on social media.
"My administrators and counselors are doing their very best to investigate any possible threats to student safety and student well-being," the message read. "Parents, we need your help. Please speak with your child(ren) and share your expectations for their behavior."
Following a September shooting at a school in Newport News, some Richmond-area schools also saw an increase in generic school violence threats on social media.
The “copycat phenomenon” has a long history in criminology, VCU professor and law enforcement expert Dr. William Pelfrey said at this time.
“When people have diffused aggression, they’re angry at somebody but they’re not sure how to express that anger and see an expression of anger or violence in the news. Then it’s common for them to follow that same path,” he said.
Detectives have a duty to investigate every threat they receive, Pelfrey said.
“Police have to pursue every threat as if it’s a real threat because it’s impossible to differentiate a Nicholas Cruz or Adam Lanza from some other random students who’s merely angry at somebody,” he said.
Dr. Pelfrey encouraged parents to talk to their children about speaking up when they see a threat on social media.
This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email firstname.lastname@example.org to send a tip.