Online threats at all-time high in New Hanover County Schools, sheriff’s office reports

Parents and students at Ashley High were on edge this past Friday after rumors of a threat against the school spread and an unrelated incident occurred between a student and teacher. (Port City Daily photo/Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Online threats are becoming a more common disruptor in classrooms and for the sheriff’s office in New Hanover County. On some occasions, investigations into the messages are deemed unfounded, yet still prompt parents to anxiously collect their kids. In other cases, the severity of the threats has called for campus-wide lockdowns and sometimes even led to the arrest of juveniles.

The situation has become so frequent that Friday, at Eugene Ashley High, talk about a previous threat resurfaced and many parents, mistakenly believing it was new, pulled students out of school early. The threat was already deemed unfounded, according to the sheriff’s office.

Spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer said often screenshots of threats originate from other places but get reshared locally.

“When you repost this stuff, you don’t know where it came from,” Brewer said. “We’ve had some that originated in other states, but you had a kid repost it and now it’s here. So that’s what we’re battling, too.”

Also on Friday, Brewer said a student made an individual threat toward an Ashley High teacher. The incident is still under investigation.

A similar situation happened recently at Hoggard High, where a threat circulated online and then an unrelated incident –– this time, a fight –– provoked parents to pick up their kids. The SRO did not call for a lockdown while the incident was under investigation.

Brewer said it is a judgment call by the school resource officers and detectives whether to lockdown or shelter in place. In one recent situation, officials were able to quickly identify that a threat originated in Georgia and had no credibility in New Hanover County.

“You can’t really say, ‘We [lockdown] in this case,’” Brewer explained. “But that being said, the SROs and the detectives and the school administration –– this what they do for a living –– so they make an educated decision on when to and when not to.”

In the Hoggard case, on Oct. 26, a Pender County teen was arrested. The following day, Oct. 27, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office announced it was investigating another social media threat, also at Hoggard. That same week NHCSO arrested two juveniles: a Holly Shelter Middle student and a Hoggard student who made a school-wide threat against Laney High. The suspects were both charged with threatening mass violence on educational property in the separate incidents.

Pender County Schools has scheduled a discussion with the sheriff’s office on school threats and bullying during its next board of education meeting Tuesday evening.

Brewer said it has never been like this before.

“The sad thing about it is, all these kids aren’t old enough and haven’t developed the part of their brain yet that says, ‘If I do this, this could hurt me in the future,’” Brewer said.

Threatening mass violence on education property is a felony.

“I don’t have to tell you how that can haunt your future for a long time,” the lieutenant said. “Everybody takes that stuff seriously. Any employer is going to take that seriously. Any college. You think any college is gonna let you on campus with that charge?”

Ashley High, Anderson Elementary and Murray Middle schools were previously placed on lockdown the morning of Sept. 17 for a threat that originated elsewhere. It occurred at the same time as top county, school and law enforcement officials were meeting privately to discuss safety improvements on campuses.

Since then, the county has outlined a rough $89-million plan to make schools physically safer and funnel millions into community resources that may steer youth away from violent paths.

The meeting was called in light of an Aug. 30 shooting at New Hanover High. The school was placed on lockdown after a student allegedly fired shots in the school’s crowded catwalk during a fight, injuring one student. The suspect was recently transferred to Superior Court. He is charged with attempted first-degree murder; assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury; possession of a firearm on educational property; and discharging a firearm on educational property.

Several other campuses were placed on lockdown or shelter in place following the incident. Afterward one Snapchat screenshot circulated suggesting another school was a target and indicating gang motive.

Anyone who feels they know of an imminent threat toward themselves, school or greater community is encouraged to contact their school or submit a tip through the Say Something anonymous reporting system, according to NHCS.

“New Hanover County Schools takes all threats seriously. We are actively working with law enforcement officials to address this ongoing issue,” Josh Smith, chief communications officer at NHCS, wrote in an emailed statement.

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