UPDATE: As if sending your kid to school wasn’t tough enough lately, a vague nationwide shooting threat further increased parental paranoia across Johnston and beyond.
“I didn’t send my kids!” wrote parent Lori Nascimento. “Extreme reaction? Maybe! But I had peace of mind!”
Nascimento was not alone.
“Our school was already closed, but I would not have sent them today,” Johnston parent Nicki Pace wrote.
“Perfect paranoia is perfect awareness,” said Shalon Stephens.
Some parents — either conceding the threat was very likely only a hoax and/or trusting school administrators and police to ensure no violence would ensue — decided to proceed as normal.
“My son is in school,” said parent Tom DiSano.
“My kids are in school today,” added Taressa McMahon.
The week preceding the start of Christmas break was packed with stress. The buses shut down for a day due to quarantining, but were suddenly reactivated.
The Sarah Dyer Barnes Elementary School shut down following a significant COVID-19 outbreak. School leaders hope Barnes will re-open after the holiday break.
And then, to cap the week, parents had to decide whether to send their kids to school after they were informed of an online school shooting threat.
The much publicized, though unspecific threat of mass school shootings on social media triggered a message to parents from school administrators and increased police presence in schools across the Ocean State.
School districts and police across Rhode Island investigated the online posts, which appeared to threaten non-specific targets with school shootings on Friday, Dec. 17.
For Johnston’s schools, it wasn’t the first time. In fact, it wasn’t the first time this year. It was the second vague mass school shooting threat in less than two months.
Oct. 28 was a difficult day for Johnston High School, which went into lockdown after a student allegedly threatened to “shoot up the school.”
That threat was the first of two discovered that day.
“On Thursday, Oct. 28, the Johnston Police Department arrested a juvenile male student at Johnston Senior High School following an investigation into threats made at the school,” according to a statement provided by Johnston Police Chief Joseph P. Razza later that day.
School officials and police were compelled to investigate not one, but two separate threat-related incidents at the school that day.
And although both threats were found to be unrelated and likely not credible, according to Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr., the second shut down the school for the day.
The student who allegedly made the initial verbal threat was removed from the school by police, arrested, and charged with disorderly conduct, according to Johnston Police.
By the time the school was in lockdown, school administrators were informed of the second separate threat, discovered by students on social media.
“In light of the other incident, it was taken very seriously. The message, which I believe was posted on SnapChat, appeared to be an individual threatening to come in and shoot up the schools and shoot four administrators,” DiLullo explained in October. “After discussing it with police, the threat appeared to be text that has been traveling around a number of high schools in several states.”
State Police brought a bomb and gun-sniffing K-9 officer to the school, but no firearms or explosives were discovered, DiLullo said.
“Later Thursday morning (Oct. 28), a threatening social media post was discovered and brought to the school’s attention,” according to Johnston Police. “Out of abundance of caution, a decision was made by the Johnston School Department to dismiss the high school students at 10 a.m. Again, this threat was deemed not credible and unsubstantiated.”
According to DiLullo and Razza, the incidents only affected the high school.
The Dec. 17 threats, however, were so vague that they not only touched each Johnston school, but also multiple towns in multiple states.
North Providence Superintendent Joseph Goho also sent a message to that town’s school community.
“As you may be aware from recent media reports, information has been circulating in other states and nationally on various social media platforms such as TikTok, concerning threats against schools on Dec. 17,” Goho wrote. “Please be assured that we have been in frequent contact with the North Providence Police Department, and although there have been no specific threats involving any (Rhode Island) school, the matter is being treated seriously. NPPD is working proactively with the school department, and has implemented appropriate action steps in response to the information. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact your child’s principal directly.”
Johnston Schools Assistant Superintendent Julie-anne Zarrella emailed parents regarding the Dec. 17 threat.
“There are TikTok videos circulating throughout the country suggesting that there will be school shootings on Dec. 17,” Zarrella wrote to parents. “The Rhode Island Fusion Center follows a variety of communication outlets to assess threats to our state. At this time, no real threats have been recognized. We have spoken with the Johnston Police Department and concur that while no evidence suggests that there is any danger to our students or staff, out of an abundance of caution (there will be an increased police) presence around the schools.”
After a week of virus-induced turmoil, parents took to Facebook Thursday night and Friday morning voicing frustrations with what seems to be an ever-growing onslaught of stress connected to sending children to school.
“Parents should have age-appropriate conversations with their children about the various threats and challenges that are circulating on social media and particularly on TikTok,” Zarrella wrote to parents. “In the last couple of weeks, students have damaged fairly new chairs with one particular challenge. While chairs can be repaired or replaced, other challenges may be dangerous or may put others in danger. Threats of any form will be taken seriously and may lead to disciplinary or police action.”
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