Even before the shootings at a Parkland, Fla., high school last month, Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher said his department takes any threats against a school seriously.
“Anytime someone mentions hurting other human beings, especially children in a school, everyone in this office takes it very seriously,” he said. “I take it seriously. The school system does as well. This is not a joking matter.”
While fake and real threats have been reported in every surrounding county – and hundreds of school systems across the country – Columbus had its first real case Wednesday, according to the sheriff’s office.
A 12-year-old student at Columbus Charter School was eating with several friends at a fast food restaurant when an adult overheard the youth mention bringing a gun to school, according to the sheriff’s office. The youth planned to “shoot up the school and everyone in it,” according to the report.
The adult contacted law enforcement, Sheriff’s Spokesperson Michele Tatum said, and deputies were assigned to investigate the case. After notifying the school, investigators sought a juvenile petition against the boy.
Multiple parents with children at the school reported that the youth had been punished recently for fighting.
Hatcher said there is no such thing as a minor threat.
“Any time someone suggests doing harm to a school or anyone else, it’s a real threat,” he said. “Parents need to help their children understand this. Making a threat against a school in this day and age has to be taken seriously. It’s not something to joke about.”
The long-term effects of even a joking comment about violence at a school can have long-term consequences, Hatcher said.
“Something like this can follow a young person their entire life, depending on the circumstances,” Hatcher said. “Parents and guardians need to emphasize to their children the impact this will have on the entire family – parents, grandparents, siblings, everyone feels the effect of an incident like this.”
Adults need to monitor their children’s online activities, as well as knowing where children are and who they spend time with, the sheriff said.
“With Facebook and other media, they are being exposed to things we adults never knew would exist when we were that age,” he said. “You need to know what your child is doing online. Sometimes that’s the only way to find out if there is a bullying problem or other issue that needs to be headed off before something serious happens.
“You need to monitor their phone, and at least have some idea who they’re hanging out with,” Hatcher said. “If you see something suspicious, take action. Find out what’s going on.”
Even in juvenile cases, Hatcher said, suspected criminal activity is thoroughly investigated. If necessary, school officials are contacted as part of any investigation, no matter how trivial the report may seem.
“In this day and age, when we’re dealing with the safety of our children, we simply cannot be too careful,” Hatcher said. “If we are contacted, this department checks it out and acts accordingly. There have been too many tragedies like those that have been in the news. We are going to do our best to prevent that here.”