False Alarms Put Long Island Schools On High Alert

Teenagers’ online threats have become common, but consequences still vary widely

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Two Nassau students were arrested for allegedly threatening their schools on Friday, May 27, adding to an already heightened sense of alarm on Long Island following a school shooting that left 22 people dead (including the 18-year-old shooter) in Uvalde, TX late last month.

In two separate instances, teenagers were arrested and charged with making terroristic threats after suggesting on social media that they would use guns to attack their schools.

The first arrest occurred on June 1 after a student at Turtle Hook Middle School in Uniondale reportedly posted a threat on social media which police said afterward had not been in earnest. According to a Nassau County Police Department release, “[The student] stated that they made a posting to cancel school and avoid a test. The images of the firearms were ‘stock’ images from the internet and a thorough search was conducted of the residence with negative result for any weapons.” The release also noted that the child does not have any prior criminal history, that “it appears [the post] was meant as a prank,” and that the student is “not responsible for any of the other social media postings.”

The second Nassau arrest occurred one day earlier, in which a student at Westbury High School was reported to school administration, Nassau Police and Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation after allegedly making several Twitter posts that “convey a desire to commit violent acts at the school,” as the Long Island Press put it.

The younger student was charged with one felony count of making a terrorist threat, and was due to be arraigned in Family Court; the older student was charged with making a terroristic threat as well as second-degree aggravated harassment, and will face those charges (a felony and a misdemeanor, respectively) as an adult.

The incidents closely followed another, similar one on May 25, the day after the Uvalde massacre, involving Bellport High School in Suffolk County. According to CBS New York, law enforcement said the teen, who’s a minor, had posted a message on Instragram which led to both a parent and the principal calling 911, reading, “Bellport mass shooting (tomorrow)?” That student was also reportedly charged with one felony count of making a terroristic threat and a misdemeanor count of harassment.

While these instances certainly caused community alarm, they are also distressingly common in our modern era. In most cases, it seems, students who intentionally or unintentionally make threats against their schools or communities have not been found to have been taking steps toward actually doing so.

In a 2019 article for The Atlantic, Tyler Kingkade wrote that he’d collected reports on “at least 269 separate shooting threats against K–12 schools in August and September alone,” more than half of which occurred on social media, and which led to the arrests of at least 178 people. “In some cases, [kids] accused of making threats were thrown off campus, while in others the consequences were even more severe … Most of those arrested were minors, several as young as 11.”

In general, Kingkade noted, “School leaders and law-enforcement officials say that they can’t take any chances, and that they won’t know what’s a genuine threat until they investigate. If someone is going to commit a mass shooting, research has found, there is a good chance that they’ll say something about it before carrying out the violence, which is why the Secret Service advised in a July report that people should tell school administrators or police if they’re concerned about a student. Still, administrators concede that they, too, are frustrated with the false alarms that always seem to pop up on social media.”

The issue of how to combat gun violence while also supporting young people’s mental health, i.e. not making the problem worse, is one that is challenging adults in the medical profession, too. So far in 2022, at least 700 U.S. children and teens have been fatally shot, according to Newsweek, which underlines what many physicians and researchers have increasingly been saying: that U.S. gun violence is a public health crisis.

Dr. Chethan Sathya, MD, MSc and Dr. Sandeep Kapoor, MD, MS of the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead and the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park address just one potential preventative aspect of this issue in a 2021 article for Annals of Surgery. According to the doctors, universal screening for risk of firearm injury or death would could make it a lot easier for medical professionals to broach that topic with patients in the first place.

“Despite vast long-standing healthcare industry support for a public health approach to firearm injury and mortality prevention—still—the minority of physicians, surgeons, nurses, and social workers ask patients questions about firearm access or gun violence risk, let alone counsel about firearm safety,” Drs. Sathya and Sandeep explained.

“Due to the paucity of research on firearm injury preventative strategies, resulting from decades of limited research funding, we must not lose sight of the fact that in many ways firearm injury is akin to a new disease,” they wrote. “We lack the data to completely understand who is ‘at risk’ and how levels of firearm injury risk may vary in different populations.”

And while law enforcement, educators, and medical experts push to find solutions for our nation’s gun crisis, a wide variety of community-based organizations keep working hard to reduce gun violence day by day by seeking to meet people in crisis, especially young people, where they’re at, and by helping them—crucially—to choose a less destructive path.

In Nassau and Suffolk counties, for example, the evidence-based SNUG initiative (which is GUNS spelled backwards) works with other community groups, outreach workers, and “credible messengers” in each community to connect with individuals at risk for violence, intervene, and encourage them onto a safer path.

Jibreel Jalloh, president of The Flossy Organization based in Canarsie, commented that government has too often “prioritized locking up young people who get involved with violence” rather than “trying to divert them towards a different path in the first place.”
“Our organization is calling for a Cure Violence site because it’ll help get to the root of the issue,” Jalloh said in an email. “Our goal is to finally bring a fully funded Cure Violence site to Canarsie. It’s insane that we have a proven model that’s been in neighboring communities for years and we still have to fight this hard to bring it over here.”

In response to the mass murders in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde last month, Governor Kathy Hochul recently passed a package of social media- and gun-related bills which, among other significant things, specifies terms under which threatening mass harm shall be a class B misdemeanor under New York State law. The new law establishes that saying you didn’t really mean it will not be accepted as a defense, and that “any overt steps taken in furtherance of the commission of such [a threat]” will be classified as as aggravated threat of mass harm.

Will this legal update mean that, in the future, New York students who do make public threats against their schools will face state rather than local charges? Or, alternately, that state law enforcement will be tapped in rather than the FBI or in-county Homeland Security officers?

Time will likely tell, given the past few years, though the answer is unlikely to leave communities feeling much better either way.

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