'Copycat' threats after Oxford shooting spur closures, arrests in Metro Detroit
Pontiac — The prospect of school shootings across Michigan has sparked fear among administrators and families, resulting in several arrests as well as dozens of closures on Thursday and more than 20 scheduled Friday.
A deluge of copycat threats following Tuesday's shooting rampage at Oxford High School prompted warnings from Oakland County law enforcement officials and the superintendent of the state's school system that false claims will be rooted out and prosecuted.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said at least 60 schools across the state as far away as Bay City had closed Thursday amid shooting threats.
Authorities had anticipated a flood of false threats, he said, but the numbers are so "completely off the charts" that they are straining resources and his staff has made a spreadsheet to track them.
"I don't know what's in people's minds to make them think that after a real tragedy it makes sense to make false threats," said Bouchard, noting the FBI and the Secret Service are joining in to help assess claims. "It is ridiculous that you're inflaming the fears and passion of parents and teachers and the community in the midst of a real tragedy."
The sheriff was joined Thursday by Oakland County Executive David Coulter, county Prosecutor Karen McDonald, FBI officials, area police chiefs and school superintendents to discuss the "tidal wave" of threats in the wake of the Oxford High School shooting that killed four students and injured seven other people.
While some people think false threats are funny or a way to get them out of school, Bouchard stressed it's a crime.
"I'm confident (those making false claims) will be held accountable," he added. "If you're making threats, we're going to find you."
McDonald said a false threat of terrorism is a 20-year felony and her office will charge it.
Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice said earlier Thursday that individuals making threats against the state's schools should be prosecuted and face "significant consequences."
Rice said the "despicable phenomenon" is "not play" and "is disrupting school communities."
The vows of prosecution came as authorities in Southfield, Sterling Heights and Flint announced Thursday that they had made arrests tied to school threats.
The repeated threats angered parents like Dave Cooper, 56, of Bloomfield Hills. His son's high school was among those to close and he said he wants the people guilty of playing on the fears of students and parents to be arrested.
Cooper said there should be virtual learning in the region “until things calm down” and that the perpetrators be brought to justice with an “aggressive investigation."
The Oxford shooting was horrible enough, he added, but the threats just compound the pain and anxiety the community is feeling.
"We’ve lost our innocence in a way in Michigan," Cooper said.
His son, Bowie, 16, who attends Bloomfield Hills High School, which was shut down by administrators Thursday and Friday, said that while the latest threats appear fake, “we also need to take them seriously."
“I’m 16 right now and just the thought that kids my age died in a school because of a shooter is just really scary, and that’s why these threats are being taken so seriously,” he said.
Bowie Cooper said his school already is reeling from the racist attacks this year. Couple that with the coronavirus pandemic and Tuesday’s shooting in Oxford, “it’s just really overwhelming at this point," he said.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel like I’m never going to have a normal year of high school,” Bowie Cooper said.
'Potential shooting' threats
Bouchard said his department is "ramping up" its investigation into the threats. The sheriff added that none of the threats initially appeared credible.
Regardless, numerous school districts canceled classes for Thursday. Other districts, including Livonia, had students lining up to leave buildings as fears mounted over social media messages threatening violence similar to what unfolded in Oxford. Other schools asked for more security, including the Grosse Pointe Public School System.
About a dozen more schools, including Hazel Park, Berkley, Clawson and Birmingham, intended to remain closed Friday.
Troy's school district canceled Thursday classes after learning of a Snapchat message of a rumored threat to a school in Rochester or Troy.
Similarly, Holly Area Schools "received multiple reports of a potential shooting threat" on social media late Wednesday, sparking a Holly police investigation.
Warren Consolidated Schools, Walled Lake Consolidated School District, Rochester Community Schools, Bloomfield Hills and Huron Valley Schools, among others, closed Thursday for similar reasons. West Bloomfield School District shut down activities and closed schools through Friday.
Other districts said they were aware of threats and were increasing safety measures but chose not to cancel classes. Detroit Country Day School, Livonia Public Schools and the Berkley School District were among those to remain open.
The reports of threats followed the Wednesday arraignment of Oxford High School sophomore Ethan Crumbley, who was charged with 24 counts tied to the Tuesday shooting at Oxford High that left four students dead and seven other people injured.
Crumbley, 15, who was charged as an adult with first-degree murder, terrorism and other counts, is being held in Oakland County Jail without bond. He faces up to life in prison.
Bouchard noted Thursday that past threats known to Oxford weren't related to Tuesday's shooting and weren't deemed credible.
The sheriff also encouraged the public to continue to share information with police about possible threats, saying "we'd rather get way too much information than miss one kernel that could be life-saving."
Timothy Waters, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, said federal resources will be provided to help local law enforcement “track down every single one of these threats.”
Waters noted the FBI has tracked 25 threats. Of those, 13 have been “fully vindicated.”
“There’s a lot of people out there that are concerned and they have every right to be," he said. "There's nothing more horrific than our children being at risk the way they were on Tuesday."
Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said he charged a 17-year-old student of Flint Southwestern Classical Academy Thursday with threatening to shoot up the school.
The student, he said, is accused of recording a rap-style video on her cellphone while riding on a school bus in which she allegedly threatened to shoot up the school "like Oxford." The video was posted to social media.
The teen is charged as a juvenile with one count of a false threat of terrorism and one count of using a computer to commit a crime, a pair of 20-year felonies.
“My message to our community has been loud and clear over the years whenever we have had instances of so-called ‘copycat threats’ following a school shooting or other mass shooting incidents around the country, and that message is 'it is not a joke, it is a crime and it will be treated as such,'" Leyton said. “I’m not going to try to figure out whether this incident in Flint today was intended to be a joke or whether it was a credible threat. The bottom line is that it’s a crime."
In Southfield, a 17-year-old is accused of bringing a gun to school Wednesday. He was expected to face charges, Southfield Police Chief Elvin Barren said.
Police were called to the Southfield Regional Academic Campus, an alternative high school on Evergreen near Nine Mile, around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday after the school's principal received a tip that the student was in possession of a weapon.
School resource officers and school administrators pulled the student from a classroom and escorted him to the office.
Police said they found a pistol in the student's coat pocket. The gun had three bullets in the magazine but no bullet in the chamber, authorities said.
"There's no indication there was a copycat situation or any types of threat against the school," Barren said during a Thursday news briefing. "It seems to be a poor decision from this young man to not only carry a weapon but carry a weapon on school property."
In Sterling Heights, police were probing shooting threats against a high school and a middle school.
Police arrested a girl who they claim made a threat against Sterling Heights Stevenson High School.
A separate threat made Wednesday involving Heritage Junior High School is also being investigated.
Both incidents involve threats to "shoot up the school," investigators said Thursday, and the threats were not believed to be credible.
Amid the threats and arrests, students were quickly evacuated early Thursday afternoon from South Lake High School as Michigan State Police and St. Clair Shores officers combed the grounds following a bomb threat.
Mothers were seen holding on tight to their children and fathers, too, as police guided those who showed up for the students to leave in an orderly fashion.
After the building was safely evacuated, authorities searched with canine units and found no devices. The investigation is ongoing.
Bouchard said he fully anticipates that schools will be reopening on Monday but noted it's up to each school and district.
"All of us are going to work 24-7 to make sure those schools are safe," he said. "We're assigning extra people to be in those buildings and to reassure students and parents and that's not going to stop. What we need to do is come together, not get more torn apart."
Staff Writers Craig Mauger and Jennifer Chambers contributed.