Salem schools have seen an uptick in hoax threats in December which district officials say are disrupting classes and increasing fear among students and employees.
In recent weeks, the Salem-Keizer School District has recorded eight hoax threats against local schools, assistant superintendent Iton Udosenata said.
“They’re typically social media posts that most of the time an anonymous student posts to alarm people or to get attention,” Udosenata said. One recent incident involved a student writing in small letters in a bathroom stall that a shooting would happen at the school, he said.
The increase comes after a high school shooting in Oxford, Michigan where a gunman killed four classmates and left seven others wounded.
“Whenever there is an instance of violence or a mass shooting … nationally you can sometimes see copycats, but what you also see is a raised awareness of these things amongst our student population and that might prompt attention-seeking by students,” Udosenata said.
The concern prompted Salem-Keizer officials last week to issue a statement with local law enforcement agencies and the FBI urging people not to make hoax threats, and to report suspected threats to law enforcement or the school rather than posting and speculating about them on social media.
The issue isn’t unique to local schools.
SafeOregon, the state’s tip line for school threats, received 28 tips so far in December about planned attacks on schools in Oregon, 21 of those in the past week, said Capt. Stephanie Bigman, a spokeswoman for Oregon State Police, which runs the tip line.
That’s up from just eight planned attack tips in November, and 11 during December 2019 - the last December where Oregon students were attending school in-person.
Across the state, the FBI has also recorded more hoax school threats in recent weeks, said Kieran Ramsey, special agent in charge of the Portland Field Office.
He said the federal agency often assists local law enforcement in tracing calls or identifying people posting on social media to help evaluate whether threats are serious.
“We get involved in these probably a lot more than people realize,” he said.
Following an FBI investigation, a federal grand jury on Dec. 2 indicted a 40-year-old St. Louis, Missouri man with ties to Newberg. He was charged with calling in hoax bomb threats to three Oregon schools, including St. Paul High School.
Udosenata said the FBI was recently involved in a local threat where “a student used language that was an indicator that gave greater concern,” but declined to provide further details.
Neither the Salem Police Department nor the Marion County Sheriff’s Office has made any arrests related to recent hoax threats at district schools.
Ramsey said hoax threats divert law enforcement attention and resources from other issues, in addition to sowing fear in schools.
“We’re investigating every single tip because we recognize the safety and security of those schools is sacrosanct,” Ramsey said. “Until we identify it as (a hoax), we’re already diverting resources from other important things we should be doing.”
The district’s effort to crack down on hoaxes and misinformation comes several weeks after a lockdown at McKay High School triggered by students reporting they saw a classmate with a gun. Police responded and never located a weapon, but school administrators told Salem Reporter they didn't believe the report was false.
During the lockdown, senior Grace Caldwell, who serves as the student advisor to the school board, said misinformation shared on social media led her and many of her classmates to believe there was a shooting at the school, with some people sharing video from inside the building that had been edited to add sounds of gunshots.
Chris Baldridge, the district’s director of safety and risk management, said there was a lag communicating with students during the lockdown.
“This was a lesson learned that we intend to adjust in the future, so that students have the situational awareness they need,” he wrote in an email.
District spokeswoman Emily Hicks said during that lockdown, false rumors also spread online about a possible student with a weapon at South Salem High School. That prompted the district to email parents to let them know the information was false "to help dispel some of the panic/misinformation impacting them," Hicks said in an email.
Udosenata said over the past week since district officials began speaking more about the impact of hoaxes, reports have died down. He said the district’s focus has been on making sure students understand that hoaxes aren’t a joke.
“They understand how serious it is, whereas they thought it would be something funny to do to scare people,” he said.
But he said local schools also struggle with fear caused by parents or students sharing threats which are often hoaxes on social media rather than reporting them so they can be investigated. Sometimes, posts being shared are old and have already been investigated.
“What posting those does instead of reporting them to the school is it just elevates a level of concern and safety,” Udosenata said.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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