School threats should bring 'significant consequences,' Michigan superintendent says
Lansing — Individuals making threats against Michigan schools should be prosecuted and face "significant consequences," Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice said Thursday.
Rice made the comments two days after four students were killed in a mass shooting at Oxford High School and the same day an array of districts in Metro Detroit closed amid reports of threatening social media messages.
More:Metro Detroit school districts cancel classes over social media posts in wake of Oxford
"An individual who threatens a school should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Rice said in a Thursday interview. "And this is a grievous crime. It is not funny. It is not play. It is disrupting school communities.
"This is not an unusual phenomenon. ... It is a despicable phenomenon.”
A former local superintendent in Kalamazoo, Rice is the top state official in Michigan public education. He is the principal executive officer of the state Department of Education and advises Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature on policy decisions.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said Thursday his office has been inundated with reports of threats to school districts — mostly on social media. The number of threats is so "completely off the charts," Bouchard said, that his staff has made a spreadsheet to track them. There are 28 public school districts in Oakland County.
"Sadly, we knew this was going to happen," Bouchard said. "School threats spike exponentially after a mass shooting. We've seen this in the past. With Parkland (Fla.), we got threats after that."
"Kids thought they were making a joke, and it causes great anxiety. Or they wanted a day off school," he added.
Bouchard said his staff is already overwhelmed with work investigating the Oxford High School shooting in which four students were killed and seven others including a teacher wounded. He is working with police chiefs from across the county to investigate the claims.
"We are going to investigate them all. Whether it’s a joke or not, it is a crime. It can be charged as a felony and domestic terrorism," the sheriff said.
As of 1 p.m. Bouchard said there were no actual physical acts of violence at any schools under investigation.
On Thursday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a statement that it is aware of recent threats to the region's schools.
"We remain in close coordination with our law enforcement partners and are using all our available resources to assist them," the statement read. "As always, we encourage the public to remain vigilant and to promptly report suspicious activities which could represent a threat to public safety."
Sgt. Renee Yax of the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday the department has received numerous phone calls, emails and social media posts regarding suspicious behavior associated with school threats in the last two days.
"As of now, we have taken 28 calls for service regarding school threats, some of them related to the same incident already reported," Yax said. "If you would like to make us aware of a school threat, a report can be filed so that we may investigate it."
Every report is given the highest priority, she said.
"We have had deputies and investigators working these complaints throughout the night and are still investigating them currently. At this time, we would like to dispel any rumors by stating we do not and did not, have anyone in custody for any of the threat complaints we’ve received," Yax said.
The department has had deputies respond to several homes for follow-up during late hours, and deputies are making extra patrols to all schools in contracted areas, she said.
"Please do not fear the extra uniformed personal and vehicles, as they are there to keep you safe. We have great communication with our schools and train on a regular basis for these unthinkable acts, shall they occur," Yax said.
Yax asked parents to speak with their children on the importance of reporting threats immediately and the consequences of false reports or prank-type behavior.
"Even a “'joke' statement, or social media post may end up being prosecuted," she said.
Multiple school districts in southeast Michigan said they were closing their doors on Thursday and some Friday because of potentially threatening social media messages.
For example, the Troy School District said it had learned about a Snapchat message "where a student in Rochester speculated about a rumored threat to a school in Rochester or Troy. A similar message was being circulated throughout Oakland County replacing 'Troy' with the name of another district," spokeswoman Kerry Birmingham said in an emailed statement.
The closures came as Michigan was grappling with the shootings in Oxford that left four teenage students dead and seven wounded. Three students remain hospitalized. The tragedy has reignited a debate in Lansing over whether the state needs stricter restrictions on firearms to prevent future violence.
Rice, who could play a key role in those discussions, said there's too great a prevalence of weapons, particularly among young people.
"We have to be more careful in our state, in our country about the prevalence of weapons," he said. "It’s just critical."
But Rice said security and safety are issues "for each individual school district and each individual school community."
“There are people that believe certain things ought to be done everywhere,” Rice said. “I can tell you what works beautifully in one community wouldn’t necessarily work beautifully in another.”
Mental health work is underfunded in Michigan, the superintendent added.
As for the idea of installing more metal detectors in schools across the state to screen students for weapons as they enter buildings, Rice opposed the strategy as a statewide solution. The Detroit school district has had metal detectors since 1985, but most schools don't have them.
"I do not believe metal detectors are the answer as a rule for day to day school work,” Rice said. “For entry into a basketball game or a football game, perhaps. For day-to-day school operations, no.”
"There are hundreds of windows on the ground floor," he added. "There are dozens and dozens of doors on the ground floor through which, things, weapons, could be slipped."
Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc, Sarah Rahal and Mark Hicks contributed.