WASHINGTON — Although online threats against area schools this week might have been intended as a prank, the seven students charged with making the threats face penalties that are no joke.
Nationally and in the D.C. area, school districts are seeing a rash of social media threats against schools, other students and even administrators. Many of the threatening posts featured a clown theme and followed a wave of scary clown hoaxes that have cropped up across the country.
Prosecutors say that making threats of mass violence is a crime regardless of the age of the individual. The threats are also disruptive and spread fear unnecessarily, according to educators.
Four boys in Montgomery County this week were charged with making a threat of mass violence. And two teens in Prince George’s County were arrested on similar charges earlier in the week. A 14-year-old D.C. girl faces similar charges for calling in a fake bomb threat.
“If they were found to be involved … in the juvenile system that would be equivalent to being found guilty,” said John Erzen spokesman for the Prince George’s County States Attorney’s office, which penned Maryland’s 2014 mass violence law.
Adults charged with the same offense in Maryland face 10 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.
However, for children there is no specific penalty. A child could be committed to a juvenile facility or receive treatment but for how long depends on the unique circumstances of each case.
Children are evaluated on factors like the specificity of the threat and their disciplinary record at school, Erzen said.
“Oftentimes when you have a child making a threat like this, it’s not being pulled out of thin air. Something is going on in that child’s life,” he said.
The juvenile inquiry process allows professionals to intervene and determine what the child is experiencing and how to address those problems, which are often at the root of a child’s misbehavior.
In Montgomery County, how students are disciplined for making a threat is up to the child’s principal, said schools spokeswoman Gyboyinde Onijala.
“A principal would really need to evaluate the totality of the circumstances and that would involve reviewing any previous disciplinary infractions, and the circumstances surrounding the incident,” she said.
Public schools in Charles County issued a note to parents and guardians Thursday about recent “creepy clown” postings online targeting schools. Superintendent of Schools Kimberly A. Hill said school officials are working with law enforcement to investigate the posts.
“It is important to note that both nationwide and within Maryland these threats have been deemed by law enforcement to be noncredible, unsubstantiated and found to be a hoax, according to the Maryland Center for School Safety. Unfortunately, the messages and alleged sightings are causing disruptions to schools and concerns among students and parents,” Hill said in a statement.
The age of social media
Many children believe that they are protected by anonymity on the internet, which is not the case, said Erzen, with the state’s attorney’s office in Prince George’s County.
“We can trace you and we will do that, and find out where this came from. And then you can face very serious charges and consequences for your actions,” Erzen said.
It’s up to parents to emphasize to their children that if they create or share a threat, they could be found responsible in court, he said.
“Just be nosy and make sure they’re not doing something either malicious, or doing something where they may get themselves into something where they don’t realize the types of problems that might cause,” Erzen said.
One of the messages both police and prosecutors are sharing with students and parents is to report any threat they see online, but don’t share it online.