In wake of Florida shooting, Pa. schools and police are on high alert

Written by Brett Sholtis/WITF News | Feb 22, 2018 5:58 PM

Central York District parent Linda Veras-Lopez, center, leans her head on her 14-year-old son Tyler Shields' shoulder during a press conference outside the Springettsbury Township Police Department Thursday. Veras-Lopez said she plans to attend every press conference because she wants updates on the police investigation into threats made to the school district earlier this week. (Chris Dunn/York Daily Record)

In the week since the Florida school shooting that claimed 17 lives, Pennsylvania police forces and school districts are changing the way they respond to threats made on social media. Schools have closed and charges have been filed against teens who have made suspicious posts online.

In York County, Central York School District has been closed for two days as police seek to learn who posted threatening messages online.

"I feel at a loss-- I feel sad," said Barb Harcourt, a first grade teacher in the district who says the threats against schools have gotten worse in recent years, but nobody seems to know what can be done about it.  

Around the state there's been a spike in incidents reported by Pennsylvania State Police that involve police charging teens for comments posted online.

In West Perry School District, a ninth grader received 34 charges of terroristic threats and 34 charges of harassment for posting a list that threatened students and administrators.

Dauphin County state police are charging a high school student with terroristic threats for posting on Instagram, "I hate everyone at WV. Like why can't they all just disappear?"

Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Brent Miller says many of these incidents are playing out on social media.

"I don't think there's a particular rhyme or reason to these. I just know that with social media and the other forms of communication out there it seems that there has been somewhat of an increase with threats going on at schools."

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School students from Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington, rally in solidarity with those affected by the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

What's less clear is what permanent changes may happen.

"There's so many arguments for gun control, mental health, parent control -- I think it's a combination," Harcourt said. She thinks metal detectors may be a good idea, but rejects the idea of teachers carrying firearms. 

That's a position shared by Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the state. Spokesman Wythe Keever says his group is pushing for increased security, but opposes measures to arm teachers -- a suggestion often made by the National Rifle Association, which President Donald Trump echoed Thursday.

"Just simply put," Keever said, "teachers' jobs are to teach children. They are not police."

Even for police, the long term response is unclear. In the Central York School District, Springettsbury Township Police Chief Daniel Stump says they don't have a long term plan, though his agency and the school district are holding a town hall meeting Feb. 28 to discuss options. 

"This experience has definitely led us down a path that we're not familiar with," Stump said. "We're learning as we go as well."

While police and schools seeks solutions, high school students around the country are staging protests and walking out of class. At the Pennsylvania School board association, spokesman Steve Robinson says maybe that response from students will be what makes this different from the aftermath of so many other mass shootings. 

"I certainly hope that this is the final wakeup call that is needed to make some changes," Robinson said. "Like I said the student activism is something I don't think we've experienced. I think their voices are certainly important in this dialogue, and perhaps that's what's needed to make the changes."

Published in Harrisburg, News, Perry County, York

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