Any threat made toward a school ‒ even if it is a joke or prank ‒ will not be tolerated and students will face full criminal consequences, law enforcement officials warn.
El Paso, as well as the nation, is seeing a “large surge” of school threats by students, with the majority of cases being made as a joke or prank, officials said. Social media is playing a large role as to why the number of false threats reported to law enforcement continues to rise.
El Paso-area law enforcement officials held a news conference Tuesday to discuss the growing trend and the consequences of making a threat.
“The surge of social media threats directed towards our community schools is an alarming problem here in El Paso and across the nation,” FBI El Paso Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey R. Downey said. “We come before you, not only as law enforcement but as parents of school-aged children, to discuss this and combat this alarming threat as a united community. The men and women of the El Paso field office of the FBI are members of this community, and we have children and grandchildren in the El Paso schools.”
He added: “We feel the same fear you do when a school is in lockdown. We have the same instinct and that is to drop everything we’re doing and run towards our children. As you can see from the number of people standing here today, we take these reports very seriously, especially when the safety of our children is in question.”
Statistics on how many school threats have been made in the El Paso area were not available. However, Downey said there has been a large increase this year.
El Paso-area schools are receiving at least eight reports a week about threats being made toward schools, Downey said.
more:Texas senator continues gun safety bills push to prevent mass shootings after Uvalde
There were nearly 6,000 school threats across the nation in 2022, which is a 60% increase from 2021, Downey said.
“The El Paso community has also seen an increase in school threats,” Downey said. “Over the past two weeks, we, the FBI, have worked eight of these school threats with our partners. And what I’ve been told by the independent school district police departments is they’re facing at least three of these threats a day , which is three too many.”
In the past two weeks, three incidents made headlines when El Paso-area schools were placed on lockdown as school district police and other law enforcement officers investigated the threats.
In February, at least three threats caused campuses to be placed on lockdown.
The Socorro Independent School District placed Pebble Hills High School on lockdown Feb. 17 after school officials received a report of a social media video showing a student with a weapon.
Earlier that same week, Coronado High School went into a security lockout Feb. 15 after what was later determined to be a non-credible threat made against the West Side campus.
A social media threat against Santa Teresa Middle School on Feb. 20 is being investigated by the Sunland Park Police Department, KTSM reported.
Franklin High School went into a “secure” status as a precaution Feb. 6 after reports of a student in the area with a gun. The gun ended up being a toy. The student, who did not attend Franklin High School, was taken into custody.
In the past few months, law enforcement has investigated dozens of threats or reports of students with guns at schools throughout El Paso County, including at Canyon Hills Middle School, Eastwood High School and the El Paso Community College Northwest Campus.
“We do take all threats (and) hoaxes seriously,” El Paso Police Department interim police Chief Peter Pacillas said. “They will be investigated and turned over to the appropriate prosecuting authority here in the city of El Paso.”
Authorities seeking full criminal charges
Students who make threats against any school face the full legal consequences, El Paso County District Attorney Bill Hicks said.
“Like every parent, I also have in the back of my head that fear of what would happen if someone took a gun to a school,” Hicks said. “Let me assure everyone out there that if someone takes a gun to a school, they will be prosecuted.”
Hicks said taking a gun to a school is a third-degree felony. It carries a punishment ranging from two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, he said.
more:Pittsburgh teen accused in El Paso airliner ‘bomb’ threat was on school mission trip
Parents who are negligent and allow their children to access guns can also face criminal charges, Hicks said.
“The District Attorney’s Office takes these cases very seriously,” Hicks said. “We will prosecute. You’re looking at a felony charge for taking a gun to a school. If you’re a parent and you negligently make a firearm available to a child, your charges can be up to a Class A Misdemeanor. You could be looking at up to a year in the county jail and a fine of up to $4,000. You negligently make that firearm available to a child, that child does something bad, you will be prosecuted. We take this very seriously.”
Students who make threats will not only face state charges, they could also face federal charges, said Jose Luis Gonzalez, city chief for the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
“They (the FBI), along with their partners at the state and local levels, will respond and investigate the threat and whether it turns out to be legitimate or not,” Gonzalez said. “Whether it was made through a swatting hoax, a careless prank, or part of a social media trend, or with total malice and intent to terrorize, these are all federal crimes. Threatening to commit a school shooting, bomb threats or any other violent acting on school property or a school-related event is a serious offense that can result in federal charges. The consequences for such an offense can be severe.”
School threats can have a federal punishment of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Gonzalez added that punishment depends on the seriousness of the crime and whether anyone is hurt or killed.
“I don’t want to sit across the courtroom from a kid who once had a bright future ahead of them and threw it away with a poor decision,” Gonzalez said.
Juveniles, those younger than 17 years old, will also face serious consequences if they make a school threat or bring a gun to campus, El Paso County Attorney’s Office Juvenile Trial Team Chief Emily Dawson said.
“My office does not downgrade these offenses,” Dawson said. “You make a threat against a school, it’s referred to us by law enforcement and we will charge it as a state jail felony. As a juvenile, you can be placed on probation until your 18th birthday in El Paso County or up until 19. “
Dawson urged parents to warn their children of the dangers of making false threats and to check their children’s social media accounts.
“I tell every parent, ‘If your child has a cellphone, you should be checking that cellphone,'” Dawson said. “If you’re paying for it, you should check it ‒ and on a regular basis. You need to talk to your kids about what they’re posting online, because kids post and think later. By the time they’re thinking later , the FBI is having to respond.”
If you see something, say something
It takes a community effort to keep schools safe, so anyone who sees a threat made online ‒ whether it could be a joke or not – is urged to immediately report it to law enforcement.
“You see something, you say something,” El Paso Independent School District police Chief Manuel Chavira said. “We have to take every one of these threats seriously because we can’t afford to be complacent. We can’t afford not to take these seriously. We don’t want any tragedies in our community. I think our community has suffered enough tragedies.”
more:Bystander shot of Cielo Vista Mall gunman as suspected fledgling fight while pointing gun
School threats can be reported to the El Paso Police Department by texting the information, threat or screenshot to 847411. El Pasoans can also download the El Paso Police Department app in the Apple app store or the Google Play store.
Threats may also be reported to the FBI El Paso Division at tips.fbi.gov.
If there is an immediate threat of danger, people should call 911 to report it.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: School threats are no joke: El Paso officials warn of consequences