What’s behind the increase in online threats against NJ schools?
A heavy police presence greeted students at Lakewood Middle School Friday after a threat to “shoot up” the school.
Video taken Friday morning shows a drone in the air over the school as officers with Lakewood police and the Ocean County Sheriff's Office patrolled the grounds.
The Lakewood Scoop reported two different threats were emailed but police Chief Greg Meyer assured parents they could feel safe sending their children to school.
Arrest in Brick; message on a wall
The threat comes a day after a Lake Riviera Middle School student was charged by Brick police with making terroristic threats.
Brick police said a student who had overheard another making "suspicious statements" told a parent who in turn reported it to police.
A search of the juvenile’s home found only a pellet gun.
“We always take such threats seriously and we encourage anyone who sees or hears of suspicious activity to report it immediately," Brick police Chief James Riccio said in a written statement.
A threat was also found written on the cinderblock wall of a second-floor boys restroom at Hightstown High School on Thursday, according to Hightstown police Chief Frank Gendron who dispelled several rumors surrounding the threat.
The handwritten threat that read "HHS Shooting 12/10/21" and posted by Ocean County Scanner News was confirmed as being the Hightstown threat by Gendron.
"We are currently investigating the incident and trying to identify the student or students that are involved," Gendron told New Jersey 101.5. "There are several rumors going around that we have made an arrest(s), students were found to be in possession of guns or that guns have been found at the high school. All of these rumors are false."
Both Hightstown and East Windsor police increased security at all of the schools in the district, Gendron said. He asked anyone with information to call 609-448-1234.
Why the increase in threats
What is behind the threats which have been made against Howell and Manchester in the past two weeks while a student was arrested for bringing a loaded handgun to Lawrence High School in Mercer County.
Central Regional Superintendent Thomas Parlapanides sees a link between the pandemic and student anxiety created by remote learning.
"The increase in my view is of a copycat nature and the media coverage and notoriety. I pray this governor does not shut down the state again. He has caused more harm to students than COVID could in ten years. The students for almost two years now have been isolated, the news increased their anxiety and their social skills and following rules has to be retaught," Parlapanides told New Jersey 101.5. "More children have been killed in Chicago from stray bullets than students that have died from Covid nationally. For the students, parents, and administrators sake the pandemic is over. Let's move on."
A form of swatting
Former Monmouth County Prosecutor Chris Gramiccioni compared the threats to swatting incidents. The difference is that swatting is a threat made directly via phone and email during the school day that brings out a response from law enforcement and first responders. The more recent threats are made via social media.
"There's a possibility people are getting a little chippy during the holidays. There has been a period of time in which children have been out of school largely doing Zoom instruction the past 12-18 months. After going back to school this fall it could just be something as simple as trying to get a day or two off from school," Gramiccioni said.
He also thought they could be connected to online dares like "devious licks" on TikTok in which an outrageous act, oftentimes criminal, is recorded on video and posted online.
"Whether it's vandalism or any type of assault or committing a scare like this causing a false public alarm it has ramifications beyond just the school being shut down for a period of time until law enforcement comes out and assesses the threat," Gramiccioni said. "You have families and students and professionals that work at the school who are scared."
Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ