Talk of weapons on several school buses last week led to law enforcement responses and student arrests, but no actual weapons were discovered.
Incidents in at least four states — New York, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama — revealed a heightened level of vigilance in the days after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Gun ‘Hoax’ on School Bus in Georgia
In Gainesville, Georgia, on Friday afternoon, a Hall County Schools bus driver heard a passenger say something about having a gun, according to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. The driver alerted the transportation department via the radio, and the department called 911.
Deputies from the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and officers from the Gainesville Police Department responded to the scene, on a highway near a marina. Authorities said they evacuated the bus and conducted a thorough search of the bus and the students, but they didn’t find any weapons.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office said that investigators arrived and determined that “the incident was in fact a hoax perpetrated by a 16-year-old male student.” That student was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, disrupting public operation of a school bus, and simple assault.
Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County Schools, told The Gainesville Times that the school bus driver responded appropriately to the situation: “I just want to stress that a well-trained bus driver did exactly what she needed to,” Schofield told the newspaper.
Similar Incident in Alabama
A similar incident took place in Daphne, Alabama, on Friday morning. According to Eddie Tyler, superintendent of Baldwin County Public Schools, “a student made flippant comments on a Daphne bus about bringing guns to school, another student heard it and called 911 from the bus."
Law enforcement officers responded to the scene and surrounded the bus. As Tyler described it, “there was needless panic and chaos.”
In a message sent to parents in Baldwin County Public Schools, the superintendent didn’t provide further details on the incident, but he urged parents to impart to their kids the importance of not talking about guns or bringing guns to school.
“Law enforcement and I have zero tolerance for anyone setting off panic or chaos with idle chatter and talk,” Tyler said. “These are severely punishable offenses by law enforcement and the school system.”
The superintendent also noted that all schools in the Baldwin County district have safety plans, which are regularly reviewed and practiced. The district also maintains partnerships with the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office and the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency.
“However, none of us can go about our normal business after the Florida tragedy without giving serious introspection about the safety of our students,” Tyler said.
School Bus Passenger Arrested in New York
Another false alarm occurred on a school bus in Whitney Point, New York, on Thursday, the day after the Florida school shooting.
On a bus ride home after school, a student allegedly made comments “of a threatening nature,” according to a statement from the Whitney Point Central School District. The comments were reported to police, who responded and arrested the student.
The Whitney Point Central School District said that the student did not have any weapons, but “the incident is in the hands of the New York State Police and District Attorney's Office.”
Police had already been on hand at Whitney Point schools earlier in the day on Thursday in response to the Florida school shooting. The district said that police would again be present in all school buildings when students returned from the holiday weekend on Tuesday.
Whitney Point Central School District officials are continuing to work with law enforcement officials on school security, the district added.
“Whenever we receive information of a threatening nature,” the district said, “we treat that information seriously and respond with an appropriate level of action to ensure the highest level of safety and security for our students, staff, and community.”
Threats on Florida School Bus
Another alarming incident took place in Ocala, Florida, about 260 miles north of Parkland. Several Lake Weir High School students reported that Merquetio Stevenson, 17, had made threats on a school bus on Thursday.
“Several students witnessed Stevenson saying that he was going to shoot and blow the school up and that they were all going to die,” the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release. “Stevenson then began ranting about blowing up the bus and about how body parts would be everywhere.”
On Friday, there was an increased police presence at Lake Weir High School as the reported bus outburst was investigated. Officials said that more than half of the school's students were absent on Friday because of the threats.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office said that Stevenson was located on Friday afternoon and taken into custody without incident.
The 17-year-old, who reportedly has five prior felony convictions from December 2016, is now charged with threatening to discharge a destructive device and two misdemeanor charges.
Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods had said in a Facebook video address posted on Thursday morning — in response to the previous day's Parkland shooting — that threats against students would not be tolerated. He confirmed that assertion in a follow-up video (see below) posted on Friday, after Stevenson’s arrest.
“I made a promise that the men and women of our agency would aggressively investigate these threats, and we made good on that promise today,” Woods said. “We will continue to remain steadfast in our mission to protect our children from all of those who wish to do them harm.”