Social media post, vandalism leave PUSD parents concerned, incidents deemed not credible

Parkridge Elementary in Peoria is one of five PUSD schools in the last two months that have experienced rumored or confirmed threats. [Philip Haldiman/Independent Newsmedia]
By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia

In recent weeks, Peoria Unified School District parents were alarmed by a social media post and vandalism at an elementary school, which were later deemed not credible by law enforcement and school officials.

These incidents came on the heels of at least three threats at PUSD schools in the last two months. Two of the threats were deemed credible and netted two juvenile arrests.

The newest incident occurred March 14 at Parkridge Elementary, 9970 W. Beardsley Road, and involved the warning of a school shooting planned for later this month.

Another incident involved an unknown person making a threat against an unknown school, which was shared on Snapchat by several Sunrise Mountain students earlier this month.

In both instances, police increased patrols in the areas as precautions, but considered the incidents not credible.

PUSD parents contacted Independent Newsmedia with concerns about the incidents but would not go on the record.

Peoria police spokesman Brandon Sheffert said threats made on social media or otherwise are taken seriously by public safety and district officials.

He said consequences can vary depending on the nature of the threat and the disruption it causes, but there is no hard rule as to the penalty.

“We consider all circumstances, but it can result in a felony arrest,” he said. “If we have enough evidence, we will charge the person. They can also be charged for merely sharing a post if it causes a disruption to an educational institution. We also educate students that these types of things can affect the rest of their lives.”

Regarding the Sunrise Mountain incident, a person shared a Snapchat post of a photo of three handguns with the statement, “I’m shooting everybody up tomorrow.”

However, no specific target was indicated in the post.

Mr. Sheffert said an unidentified Sunrise Mountain student added a comment to the photo, “hope this wack human doesn’t go to SMHS.”

Mr. Sheffert said the student had found the initial threatening photo and then added the warning, sharing it later on social media. Students then shared the photo rapidly on social media, which concerned parents, students, school staff and police.

“A student shared a post on social media that they had found. The original post had no reference to any school or any specific place. It was the shared post that mentioned ‘Sunrise Mountain High School,’ and the post was shared as a warning to other students and was not a threat,” Mr. Sheffert said.

After the police department was warned of the message, PUSD spokeswoman Danielle Airey said the district sent an email message to Sunrise Mountain High School parents, 9:30 p.m., March 6.

The email to parents stated: “We were just made aware of a Snapchat shared by one of our students indicating that another snapchatter was planning a threat against an unknown school. It is important to note that this original snapchatter did not identify a specific school. At the time we send this, no direct threat has been made against Sunrise Mountain High School.”

However, Independent Newsmedia received concerns from parents because they had never received the email and some decided to call their children off from school the next day as a precaution.

The day after the incident,  570 Sunrise Mountain students were absent, or about one-third of the school’s enrollment. District spokeswoman Erin Dunsey said that on an average day, the school has up to 150 absences.

Ms. Airey said the district receives a detailed report from its email service that confirms receipt messages where a student has a valid email on file.

“We encourage anyone who states that they did not receive the message to update their emergency contact information with the school office,” she said.

Ms. Dunsey added that the post was a shared by a Sunrise Mountain student, but the author of the original post is unknown and may not be local.

“I think much of the confusion was based on that very misunderstanding,” Ms. Dunsey said.

Concerning the other threat, Janet Swarstad, principal of Parkridge Elelementary, sent an email to parents on March 14 warning that a “rumored threat” for March 30 was found written on a bathroom wall of one of the school’s upstairs restrooms, but they did not believe it to be credible.

Mr. Sheffert added that someone wrote on a bathroom stall in pencil, “school shooting March 30th.”

Police deemed it not credible, but Mr. Sheffert would not offer how he came to that conclusion.

“As far as how we deem threats credible or not, we take into consideration a number of factors and make the decision,” he said. “Releasing information on how we do that would hinder us in the future.”

In addition to these incidents, the school district has seen at least three other threats in the last two months.

In early February, police arrested a 14-year-old girl on multiple charges related to text messages and comments she made on social media threatening a school shooting. In that case, two Peoria High School students told their parents about it, resulting in the arrest.

In another previous case, Centennial High School went on lock down Feb. 10  after unsubstantiated reports of a student carrying a handgun in his waistband on campus. Police did not locate any weapon.

Later that month, a 12-year-old Alta Loma Elementary School student was booked into the Durango Juvenile Detention Center on a hoax charge after he made threats against Santa Fe Elementary School via Snapchat.
All four schools are located in PUSD.

Mr. Sheffert said threats like these have increased due to the use of social media and the anonymity that students feel comes with it.

“Obviously the safety of students is a priority for the police department and we do everything in our power to follow-up on these alleged threats and anything that could jeopardize the safety of the kids,” he said.

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