Hoax Shooting Threats Rattle New York Schools

A 14-year-old freshman at Murrow High School in Brooklyn was sitting in history class one April morning when she got a string of chilling texts from a friend. A threat to shoot up the school had been posted on the chat site Omegle — and it included a list of about a dozen students who would be killed. One of them was the 14-year-old girl.

“To see your child’s name on a literal hit list was truly the most completely devastating thing,” said Jessica Heyman, the girl’s mother.

But the girl, whose name is being withheld, knew immediately that the threat was a hoax: Just days earlier, another threat had targeted students at another New York City high school, the Clinton School, using precisely the same language.

The incidents at Murrow and Clinton were two in a string of nearly identical hoax threats aimed at more than a dozen New York City schools over the last four months, and at least nine other schools nationwide, including ones in Long Beach, Calif. and Hicksville, N.Y., on Long Island, according to parents, students and two senior law enforcement officials.

The New York schools include many of the city’s most elite public and private schools, including the Berkeley Carroll School, the Brooklyn Friends School and Brooklyn Technical High School in Brooklyn, and Beacon High School, LaGuardia High School and the United Nations International School in Manhattan. As recently as this week, the police said, a threat was made against New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn.

John Miller, the deputy commissioner for the Police Department’s intelligence division, said the department is investigating seven of these threats in New York City, and coordinating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is probing the threats nationally.

“These are not credible threats,” Mr. Miller said. “They’re meant to cause disruption.”

The authorities believe the threats are made by a person — possibly overseas, Mr. Miller said — who finds the names of students at a school by searching Instagram for children with public accounts using rudimentary social media skills. Often, they pose as a student of the school which they are threatening, Mr. Miller added.

The threat-maker targets high-profile schools to gain attention but does not appear to have any intention of following through, according to a separate senior law enforcement official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the threats.

“We take every security related incident seriously to ensure the continued safety of our students and staff and we are working closely with the N.Y.P.D. on their investigation of these threats,” said Jenna Lyle, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

For decades, American schools have had to contend with fake fire alarms, bomb threats and threats to commit school shootings. But these hoaxes reflect a disconcerting new reality for a country already reeling from a mass violence epidemic: Social media has made it increasingly easy to craft eerily specific threats of violence that clog up one of the few avenues law enforcement has to police them.

“If the system becomes overwhelmed by false alarms, some could slip through,” said Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare who studies school violence at the University of California Los Angeles. “It takes away a big tool.”

The site where the hoax threats were made, Omegle, was also used sometimes by the gunman who killed 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex. The hoax threats posted on Omegle about New York City schools mentioned the type of assault rifle that would be used in a shooting and the music that would play: Abba.

The prevalence of hoax school shooting threats — and an uptick following a particularly notorious or deadly mass shooting — is not uncommon. For most of this school year, the city fielded an average of about two school shooting threats a day, the senior law enforcement official said. In the week following the Uvalde shooting, the number spiked to about six per day.

“Only a small percentage of these threats are serious. Others will make threats as a prank or in an effort to be disruptive, not unlike previous generations that would pull a fire alarm or make a prank phone call,” said Dewey G. Cornell, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who studies youth and violence. “The stakes are higher now with social media and the tremendous anxiety that is generated by the threat of a school shooting.”

Notwithstanding the hoax threats, targeted school shootings are rarer at schools in big cities. A 2020 federal report found that while urban schools had more shootings overall, those shootings typically stemmed from disputes and happened outside the school building.

The Department of Education spokeswoman, Ms. Lyle, said school officials at every school are trained in emergency response protocols and that, “following a threat, schools typically introduce additional safety measures, including scanning and the deployment of additional N.Y.P.D. School Safety Agents.”

After the hoax directed at Berkeley Carroll, a private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, circulated in early February, the school increased security and allowed students to attend remotely for several days. But it did not close or lock down the school, telling parents it was following recommendations from the police.

One disturbing feature of the threats is that they also name the student who will supposedly commit the attack. A couple of weeks before the Murrow High School threat, Chelsea Altman was awakened at her home in Brooklyn by a call from a detective in Long Beach, Calif.

Her 14-year-old son, the detective told her, was named as the person who would shoot up a school there. She woke her son. It turned out that he already knew he had been falsely identified as a potential threat — but not at that school. He had learned the day before that he was named as the would-be attacker in the threat to the Clinton School in Manhattan.

“It took me a few minutes to unpack what actually happened and realize there’s someone just doing this to scare everyone,” Ms. Altman said.

The Long Beach police said that the threat, made about Wilson High School on March 30, was similar to the threats made against the high schools in New York and that detectives “determined there was not a credible threat.”

A month after the Clinton School threat, a friend of Ms. Altman’s son was named as the would-be attacker in a mass-shooting threat against LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. The list of supposed victims included many of his friends. “They added all my mutual friends from Instagram and added those as names,” said the boy, who is 15.

In the following days, he received hundreds of hateful messages, including threats, from people who had seen the LaGuardia threat and assumed it was real.

“In this day and age, there’s no such thing as a ‘hoax’ threat or a prank because the fear and the related stress and trauma is very real,” said Justin Brannan, the city councilman who represents the district that includes New Utrecht. He likened the similarly-worded threats to the childhood game “Mad Libs.”

Omegle, which allows people to chat via video with strangers, says it has several million daily users. After the Uvalde massacre, a 17-year-old girl came forward to say she had unsettling interactions on Omegle with the gunman, who showed her a gun, with blood visible on the floor, and claimed that he had a nosebleed.

The threats made on Omegle against the schools in New York and elsewhere follow a pattern, the senior law enforcement official said: The person blocks their video feed, types the threat, then leaves the chat. The threats come to the attention of the authorities after the people who see the threats screenshot them and share them.

The law enforcement official said that the authorities in New York had subpoenaed and received from Omegle chat records including the IP addresses of the people posting the threats, but consistently hit dead ends, in part because of encryption software used by the threat-maker.

A spokesman for Omegle said that the company “takes threats made by users on the platform very seriously” and “works closely with law enforcement agencies investigating threats made by users on Omegle.”

For those who study school violence, the spate of mass shooting warnings is just another chapter in a long history of fake threats. The strategies change, they say, but the intent — to sow chaos and disruption — remains the same.

“We see it in ebbs and flows,” Mr. Astor said. “I haven’t had people call me about a fake fire alarm in a really long time.”

Téa Kvetenadze contributed reporting.

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