Online threats pose new challenges for Manatee County School District

Manatee County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene.
 GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald
Manatee County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

BRADENTON -- Back in the day, when Manatee County School District Superintendent Diana Greene was a student, and when she was starting out as an administrator, tracking down a threat made against a school was much easier, for the most part. Police could simply trace back the phone call.

With the rise of social media, and the rise of violence carried out against schools, it's much harder to track down and verify threats.

"Now, everybody has access to social media," Greene said last week, after the district had two different instances of phony online threats made against district schools last week. "There are so many new ways to hide where it comes from."

Law enforcement officials agree, which is why Bradenton Police Lt. James Racky said when threats come in police are "going to overreact, a little bit," until they can be certain it's not a credible threat.

It's become an issue nationwide, where all the schools

in Los Angeles shut down for an entire day because of what turned out to be a bogus threat. The issue came up recently at a superintendent's conference that Greene attended. Even though the issue wasn't on the agenda, enough superintendents in the state of Florida had been having issues with the online threats it became a topic of discussion.

The threats require attention and resources and are often difficult to track down, but officials say they may just be the reality of the world today.

"We live in such different times," Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said. "In today's day and age, everybody has to take every one of these threats very seriously."

In Manatee County

In a one-week period, the school district reacted to two threats -- both which turned out not to be related to Manatee County schools -- by increasing police presence at the schools.

Officials at Lincoln Middle School in Palmetto were made aware of a threat against the school late Tuesday night. The online threat did not specify Lincoln Middle School in Palmetto, but did include the word Lincoln. As Palmetto Police worked to track down where the threat came from, a call went home to parents on Tuesday and again on Wednesday morning before school. The same threat that put officials on heightened alert in Palmetto was also received by schools with the name Lincoln across the country.

Regardless of the type of threat or the potential source, the district is always going to make decisions in the best interest and safety of the students, Greene said.

"We're going to err on the side of caution," she said.

Two days after that, Manatee High School was the subject of another bogus online threat. A student brought the online threat to the attention of the staff about mid-day on Thursday. More police officers were called in to the campus while others worked to figure out whether the threat was real or not. Again, the threat did not specify Manatee High School in Bradenton, but did include the acronym MHS. A call went home to parents after school. Again, school district officials across the country were on heightened alert because of that threat.

When threats come in, one of the first responses is to send as many police officers to the school as possible. The police will do their best to work the threat backward to figure out where it came from.

"If we, as law enforcement, can substantiate a threat, we will shut the school down," Racky said.

Anecdotally, Racky said he's seen the number of online threats increase in the last 21 years he's been here, due in part to the onset of violence against school district and the rise of social media.

Steube agrees, saying it used to be much simpler to trace back a phone call. A lot of good police work today still stands, including talking to students who may have heard the threat and may help police circle back to the origin. But tracking down threats like this also requires good technology on the part of the local law enforcement departments. They also need people who know how to use the technology.

"In most cases, it's very difficult to find out where a threat is coming from," Steube said.

When the information in the threat is sketchy and nonspecific, that can also make it difficult to trace back.

"We do our best to work with what we can," Racky said.

For officials, there's no easy solution. Each threat requires attention and resources to make sure students are safe.

"I'd rather act and nothing happen than not act," Racky said.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.