ST. PETERSBURG — The mayor and the police chief came to Northeast High on Thursday to warn students about the dangers of circulating rumors of school safety threats on social media.
While they were there, one of those unfounded rumors popped up on Facebook.
A parent posted that she called the school and said a receptionist confirmed there was a threat of an active shooter. It went viral.
Scores of frightened parents rushed to the school in their cars and lined up outside, hours before dismissal, to pick up their children.
"Part of the rumor was our SWAT team was here," said St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway. "The SWAT team was not here. The mayor and I were; I guess we’re the SWAT team."
Debunking that rumor took police two hours, Holloway said. It was one of nine rumored threats investigated by St. Petersburg Police since last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Broward County, which killed 17 people and injured 14.
Holloway, Mayor Rick Kriseman and Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego called a news conference at the school that afternoon to put an end to the spread of rumored — and already deemed unfounded — threats on social media. They were joined by Pinellas County School Board chairwoman Rene Flowers and St. Petersburg City Council chairwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.
"What we want to do is tell everyone to be responsible," Holloway said. "We’re asking parents and students, if they see something, say something. But also, please, and I say please, do not spread the rumors on social media."
Holloway also announced that police arrested a 16-year-old Lakewood High student Thursday afternoon who is accused of telling a teacher and students he was planning a school shooting.
The boy now faces a charge of making a false report concerning the use of a firearm in a violent manner, a second-degree felony.
Holloway warned that students who make threats will be arrested and charges will be forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office. He said all rumors and threats are thoroughly investigated and false flags can drain resources.
"It’s not a joke," he said. "This is not a joke."
He said officers will be visiting schools in their assigned areas to learn their layouts and talk to students and staff.
Grego said false threats add anxiety to the community and disrupt learning environments.
"Parents, if your student is on social media, supervise that," he said. "If there is something of a threat on social media, report it. That’s your responsibility. It’s not to spread it, but rather to report it."
Flowers had a more direct message for students.
"I just want to stress to the students that you’re not a snitch," she said. "What you’re doing is you’re saving a life, and you’re saving the lives even of that person who may be thinking about harming someone else."
Kriseman said the school district needs more dollars from Tallahassee for school safety.
The Pinellas County School Board went into a private meeting after a board workshop Tuesday to discuss safety measures. Clint Herbic, associate superintendent of operational services, said the district wants to speed up building glass storefronts in school front offices and take a look at how effective its trainings are for crisis situations. He said the district is also learning how it can increase security by learning about the shooting in Parkland.
The school district dealt with a total of three threats on Thursday. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is investigating an ominous message written on a restroom wall at East Lake High warning students not to come to school on Friday.
"Careful, don’t come to school Friday 2-23. You’ll see why," it said. A smile was drawn next to the threat.
According to an email sent out by East Lake principal Carmela Haley, school staff and law enforcement are conducting a safety sweep of the campus. There will also be an increased police presence at the school Friday.
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.