Since Parkland, there have been more than 50 threats on Manatee schools. No joking, cops say

After a mass shooting at a school, law enforcement commonly sees a surge in copycat or hoax threats. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — the worst school shooting in Florida’s history — was no exception, including in Manatee County.

Since the massacre on Feb. 14, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and the Bradenton and Palmetto police departments have investigated at least 56 threats involving schools in Manatee County. The majority of the threats occurred within the month after 14 students and three killed teachers were killed in Parkland.

Each time, law officers took the threat seriously and investigated.

Several of the threats sent schools into full lockdowns, with students hiding in corners or closets in locked and darkened classrooms. Worried parents flocked to campuses and as they waited for the all clear, they received calls, texts and videos from their kids.

Some students admitted being scared, were in tears or went as far as to say, “I don’t want to die.”

“For us, it was disturbing that so many young people decided that was something to joke about,” Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells said.

The sheriff’s office said it investigated 37 threats against schools in the past year, resulting in at least 10 arrests — including of students as young as 11 years old — and nine juvenile referrals on felony and other charges. More than half occurred in the two weeks after the Parkland shooting.

In Bradenton, police investigated five threats, including four at Manatee High School. Three people were arrested.

One of those arrested was Joe Clerjuste who investigators say threatened Manatee High School in a video posted on Snapchat. In the Snapchat threat, Clerjuste flashes a handgun with an extended magazine while driving towards the school.

Five months after he was arrested, Clerjuste was charged with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of two teenagers during what investigators described as an argument about a botched drug deal.

Bradenton police also investigated a threat made by a 14-year-old boy at Sugg Middle School. He claimed he had a bomb in his backpack, and he was later charged after being involuntarily hospitalized under the Baker Act.

In Palmetto, police investigated 14 threats in the past year, all involving Palmetto High School or Manatee School for the Arts. At least one student was arrested and another a juvenile referral was sent to the state attorney’s office to consider charges.

Investigators say the children who have been arrested almost always claim they were joking and not serious about the threats.

“We continue telling people, ‘This isn’t a joke. This is a criminal offense,’” Wells said. “These kids really hurt themselves. Now that’s going to follow them around for the rest of their lives.”

Last May, the FBI launched a campaign to educate the public about the consequences of making hoax threats against schools and other institutions, using the hashtag #thinkbeforeyoupost. The campaign started days after a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas that killed nine students and one teacher.

When warranted, someone can face federal charges for making false or hoax threats, and face up to five years in prison.

In a statement issued in October as part of that campaign, FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said, “Hoax threats disrupt school, waste limited law enforcement resources, and put first responders in unnecessary danger. We also don’t want to see a young person start out adulthood with a felony record over an impulsive social media post. It’s not a joke; always think before you post.”

In addition to being a drain on law enforcement resources, the hoax or copycat threats exasperate the emotional anguish students, school staff and parents are already suffering. During these times of emotional distress, law enforcement is already on high alert and have additional resources at schools to provide additional safety and the needed comfort, Wells explained.

With the upcoming one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting on Thursday, Wells cautions anyone considering making a hoax threat, saying they will find themselves in the juvenile booking facility or in jail.

“They are going to take the ride and it will no longer a joke for them,” he said.

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Jessica De Leon has been covering crime, courts and law enforcement for the Bradenton Herald since 2013. She has won numerous awards for her coverage including the Florida Press Club’s Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting in 2016 for her coverage into the death of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas.