Most threats made after Oxford were hoaxes. How should they be punished?
- School threats skyrocketed following the mass shooting at Oxford High School last November
- Most were hoaxes — middle schoolers looking to get out of class
- Prosecutors and courts favor counseling, probation and community service over incarceration
Late in the afternoon last Dec. 8, officials at Alpena Public Schools were alerted to a middle school student who had threatened classmates at Alpena’s Thunder Bay Junior High. The student referenced a gun.
School officials called Michigan State Police, which rushed to investigate. Before school officials could finish a letter to parents about the incident that evening, they received another call: A high school student had talked about violence at Alpena High School. That student, too, referenced a gun.
The Alpena students were among more than 100 in Michigan accused of threatening schools in the days and weeks after a terrifying shooting rampage at Oxford High School left four students dead and seven people injured. Scores of schools were forced to shut down, while police and sheriff’s departments were overwhelmed as officers raced to investigate each case.
Seven months later, few if any of the students accused of making threats face incarceration. Most cases turned out to be middle-schoolers who did not pose a danger. And authorities are no closer to a strategy that deters young people from making dumb choices.
What is clear, following interviews with more than a dozen law enforcement, prosecutors, legal experts, defense lawyers and school leaders is that, after Oxford, schools are far more likely to involve police when a student’s words, texts or social media posts appear threatening, even when they are downplayed as a joke.
“They’ll be treated as real whether they are jokes or not,” said Lee Fitzpatrick, communications director for Alpena Public Schools. “We can’t take things as anything but serious. That means there will be consequences.”
Middle-schoolers avoiding class
At least 133 students faced juvenile charges for alleged school threats in six Michigan counties in the month following the Oxford shooting, according to contemporaneous news reports and data compiled by Bridge Michigan.
Wayne County, the state’s most populous, charged 38 juveniles with making threats of violence at 29 schools in that first month, according to data obtained by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s office.
One student was just 9 years old.
Threats “increased exponentially” after Oxford, Worthy told Bridge. Most were students who just “wanted to get out of school, get out of an exam, or whatever. Some want to be recognized, ‘I want to be noticed.’”
“We had a case where a girl said she wanted to be a serial killer,” Worthy said. “But she said she was only joking when she was confronted.”
None of the Wayne County school threat cases that have been concluded so far ended in students being sent to jail or a juvenile home. At least 14 charges were dismissed and nine youths were placed on probation. Some cases are still scheduled for bench trials.
The Macomb County Prosecutor’s office filed 30 school threat cases in the weeks after Oxford, 17 were filed in Oakland County, nine in Washtenaw County and four in Kent County, according to public statements released in December.
In Muskegon County, Prosecutor D.J. Hilson’s office handled 35 cases over that period. The students charged tended to fit the same demographic as in Wayne.
“Most of our cases ended up being a middle school kid who just didn’t want to go to school that day,” Hilson said. “We tell them even if you think you’re joking, the words you say cause a lot of things to happen — it causes police to get called and you to face consequences at school.”
Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said his officers investigate about two school threats a month. “A lot of times, (a threat) means throwing every resource we have at it,” he said. “And when we do that, then, for the most part, any other kind of police work comes to a stop.
“We had school threats on consecutive days, and we had 19 officers on it,” Wriggelsworth said. “A lot of times it comes out that it’s a seventh-grader who didn’t want to go to school, but by the time we figure that out, we’ve spent 24 hours” investigating.
It’s a no-win situation for school leaders, who know the devastating impact a suspension and juvenile record can have on a child, but also can’t take the chance that they miss a clue that could prevent another Oxford.
“Middle school kids are going to be impulsive,” said Jason Mellema, superintendent of Ingham Intermediate School District.
“Before Columbine you might tell them to sit in the corner. But (now) when a threat comes across (a superintendent’s desk) that could be threatening, we have to take them very seriously. Is there a capability for students to carry out what is being said? Is it said (in) anger? Is it because a kid wants to get out of a test?
“That’s the challenge for parents,” Mellema said. “The schools they went to 20 years ago are so different from the realities schools face today. We don’t have the ability to laugh those things off.”
Details of specific cases are cloaked in secrecy because the accused are typically juveniles. Some Michigan counties would not disclose even broad parameters of how the crush of criminal cases they filed were resolved.
But in interviews with school, court and law enforcement officials, Bridge was unable to confirm a single instance in which prosecutors obtained a conviction or juvenile disposition that included incarceration for the December threats.
That’s not to say there were no consequences.
Many districts have zero-tolerance policies for threats that include automatic suspensions and notifying police. Prosecutors said some students have been ordered to undergo counseling, finish probation, perform community service or write essays on how their actions impacted their classmates and community.
Most of the alleged threats, officials said, didn’t involve students with a loaded semi-automatic rifle, or a credible ability to carry out the violence threatened.
And that’s the conundrum for schools and law enforcement in 2022: Most threats turn out to be just kids being reckless. But any one of them could be a warning sign from a potential killer.
Bridge’s ability to fully track legal outcomes was limited. Prosecutors in Oakland, Macomb and Kent did not reply to Bridge requests for dispositions of juvenile school threats. Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit shared the total number of school threat cases filed last December, but declined to discuss the disposition of those cases.
Zero tolerance for jokes
Beginning with the Columbine massacre in 1999 and building with each new school rampage, every bomb-tinged joke on a school bus or drawing of a gun on a bathroom mirror is presumed to be a real threat by police and school leaders, though the vast majority turn out to pose no danger.
Without thorough investigation, no one knows which Instagram post or remark to a friend could be a warning sign. Which is why families in the Oxford school community are demanding answers for why so many signs appeared to have been missed last fall.
Just hours before the shootings, prosecutors say, the accused gunman, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, was seen by a teacher scrolling online for ammunition and drawing a disturbing picture of a gun, a bullet and someone bleeding. He wrote that his “thoughts won’t stop, help me,” and “the world is dead.”
Crumbley also posted photos of a gun his parents had given him as an early birthday present on social media, along with videos on his phone vowing to shoot up his school.
The teen was called to the school office and his parents were summoned, but police weren’t notified. Crumbley said his drawings were for a video game. School officials asked his parents to take him home. When they declined, Crumbley was allowed to return to class. School officials did not check his backpack or locker, where investigators say they believe Crumbley had the gun used later that day in the shooting spree.
“A lot of the active shooters that go through with their threat, oftentimes there’s some inkling in a social media post,” said Wriggelsworth, the Ingham sheriff.
“We can’t just hope they don’t do it. We have to look into it and figure it out.”
Today, many school districts have policies that turn over all threats to police. Alpena’s “zero tolerance” policy, for example, states that “the impact of real or ‘joke’ threats is real and far reaching for so many people. For any individual who makes a threat, the consequences will be swift and severe, potentially resulting in imprisonment.”
Fitzpatrick, of Alpena, said schools are getting reports of threats forwarded to them they may not have seen before because parents, students and community members are hyper-vigilant after Oxford.
“The rules kind of changed,” Fitzpatrick said. “What might have been OK yesterday is not OK today. And that’s difficult for students to understand.”
Lynda McGee, co-executive director of the Hamtramck-based Michigan Children's Law Center, which provides legal services to children, said juveniles who might not have been charged with crimes before Oxford are now being pulled into the criminal justice system.
School threat prosecutions “went from zero to 60” after Oxford, McGee said. “These are kids being dumb and thinking nothing of it. They’re in school and they’re talking to friends saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to shoot up so-and-so,’ and they have no ability to carry this out at all.
“I get it as a parent and community member — I don’t want it to be my child next, because we didn’t take it seriously enough,” McGee said. “But from a defense attorney perspective, when you charge a kid, you’re entering the school-to-prison pipeline, when maybe all they need is some counseling.”
Wriggelsworth sees it differently.
“There’s not a kid across the country who doesn’t know you can’t write a bomb threat on a bathroom wall,” the sheriff said. “Their brain isn’t (fully) developed yet, that’s fine, I get all that. But they knew they shouldn’t do it.
“Even if you’re 13 years old, there have to be some kind of consequences, … from the parents, from school or the criminal justice system,” he said. “Because without consequences, … then it breeds more and more of these things. When there’s an active shooter, then it’s too late.”
Rehabilitation over incarceration
Those consequences often include suspension, but, typically, no jail sentence. Since the Parkland, Florida school shooting that left 17 dead in 2018, Worthy said her Wayne County office has filed more than 100 school threat charges. In most cases, her office and juvenile courts have focused on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
Muskegon prosecutor Hilson said while students are being investigated in his west Michigan county, most cases end with community service, an essay and “some limited supervision.”
Hilson noted that Michigan prosecutors successfully campaigned for a change in the law several years ago that gave prosecutors the ability to charge a student accused of making a school threat with a misdemeanor, rather than a “20-year terrorism felony.” (That law allows for a felony charge with up to 10 years in prison if the person making the threat also had “specific intent” to carry out the threat or committed an “overt act” as part of a plan.)
In January, Worthy sent a letter to school districts in Wayne County for distribution to families, pleading with parents to talk to their children about the potentially dire consequences of even joking about school shootings.
“Often they make the threat thinking that it is not a big deal as long as they did not actually plan to carry it out,” the letter says in part. “Michigan law, however, makes it a crime to make a threat, even if the person making the threat did not have the intent or the capability of actually carrying it out.”
It’s hard to know how effective such warnings are, Worthy admits — how do you measure hoax threats that never get made?
“We don’t know how many we’ve prevented, but I can tell you I’m approached often by parents who have seen the letter and taken it seriously,” Worthy said.
“We’ve done a lot, but there is more to do,” she said. “No school system wants to be the one to ignore these threats.”
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please support our nonprofit newsroom?