CT police: ‘Copycat’ threats against schools are the result of social media trend

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Norwalk High School was evacuated Wednesday due to an unspecified threat.

Norwalk High School was evacuated Wednesday due to an unspecified threat.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

The repeated threats of violence against schools that disrupted classrooms in several Connecticut districts for the for the past several days are “hoaxes” posted to social media by students hoping to get out of school, police officials said.

The threats do not appear to be related to any one individual or group of people, but to a social media trend that has students encouraging one another to post anonymous threats online, according to Brian Foley, an aide for Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella.

“I do believe they are copycat incidents,” Foley told reporters. “It’s not like one ring of people that are spreading [the threats] out all over the place.”

The latest incident occurred in Hamden, where state police announced the arrests of two students at Eli Whitney Technical High School in relation to a pair of “loosely related” social media threats that forced the school into lockdown over the past two days. Officials also placed a nearby middle school on “lock out,” due to threats Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, police in Waterbury announced plans to increase their presence at the city’s Career Academy High School on Tuesday following a threat there.

Speaking to reporters outside of the Eli Whitney Technical High School, Foley said that police are continuing to investigate incidents around that state, raising the possibility of further arrests.

State police’s Connecticut Intelligence Center put out a bulletin to local police departments Tuesday regarding the social media trend, Foley said. He did not share additional details, such as whether the trend was unique to certain platforms. A State Police spokeswoman, Sgt. Dawn Pagan, said both threats at Eli Whitney Technical High School were posted to Instagram.

In response to the threats, officials with the state’s education said they are coordinating with other departments and local officials to deploy emergency mobile psychiatric services, along with informational support to help develop a response to the threats.

The threats against schools began last week in Norwalk, Danbury and Hamden before rolling over into this week and spreading to New Haven, disrupting classes for thousands of students on Monday.

At least one other arrest was made this week of a juvenile in New Haven in connection with threats that prompted nearly a dozen schools to close or go into lockdown on Monday.

All of the threats come a little less than a week after four students were killed in a shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan. Police charged a 15-year-old student at the school with with four counts of murder.

News reports of “copycat” threats at schools in Michigan and Northern California have emerged in the wake of the Oakland shooting.

“Whenever there’s a school shooting in the country that receives a lot of attention, you can absolutely expect these threats to occur in the days and weeks after,” Foley said.

Rachel Masi, a clinical psychologist and research director at Sandy Hook Promise, said that events such as lockdowns or school closures due to threats can be traumatizing for some students, even if the threats are deemed not to be credible.

“Kids, they do see things in the news, they are concerned and the best practice [is] having that open door so they can speak with an adult, ask their questions, be heard and feel like they are empowered within their school,” said Masi, whose organization was established by family members of those killed during the 2012 shooting in Newtown.

The Department of Children and Families, in coordination with the state and local school officials, has mobilized its psychiatric response teams to several districts in the state, including New Haven and Hamden, according to Tim Marshall, the agency’s director of community mental health services.

Those teams typically include two to three licensed clinicians who are made available to students in the wake of “large, impactful events,” such as the death of a student or faculty member.

“They’re charged with stabilizing the crisis of the time,” while providing a connection to longer-term services, Marshall said.

Meanwhile, police and school officials also issued a stern warning to students Tuesday, promising discipline and the possibility of arrest for making phony threats.

“I can assure students who may be thinking about that, that we are well equipped to follow-up and deal with any and all future events as well,” said Ellen Soleck, the interim superintendent of the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System, the district that includes Eli Whitney Technical High School.

Foley said Tuesday that local police and state troopers will increase their presence at schools around the state in the coming days.