Dozens of Michigan schools remained closed Friday after what the local sheriff’s office called “a tidal wave of copycat threats” in the aftermath of Tuesday’s shooting at Oxford High School outside Detroit that left four students dead and seven other people injured.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said at least 100 threats or threatening social media posts have emerged since Tuesday’s shooting in Oxford, Mich. The total is “completely off the charts” and has strained law enforcement resources, he said. The number is so high that the FBI is assisting the sheriff’s office with its investigations, authorities said.
“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,” Bouchard said at a news conference. “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 majority of the baseless threats - which affected roughly 14 school districts in suburban Detroit and stretched to cities as far as 80 miles from Oxford - are believed to be coming from culprits who are trying to get classes canceled or think “it is funny,” Bouchard said. On Thursday, at least 60 schools were shuttered. The closures continued into Friday, with local media reporting more than 100 cancellations statewide.
“Tuesday’s tragic shooting at Oxford High School has created a tidal wave of copycat threats to area school districts, prompting more than half of the public schools in Oakland County and other districts outside the county to suspend classes,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
One of the threats involved a 12-year-old who exited a school bus and said he was going to “shoot it up,” Bouchard said.
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said her office would charge offenders with a false threat of terrorism, a felony with a prison sentence of 20 years. Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice echoed the prosecutor, saying these individuals should face “significant consequences” for what he described as a “despicable phenomenon.”
Bouchard, who said several arrests have already been made, emphasized that the high volume of baseless claims has further traumatized people affected by the shooting.
“If you’re making threats, we’re going to find you,” he said.
On the legal front, a decision on whether to file charges against the parents of the Oxford High School shooting suspect could be imminent. Ethan Crumbley, a 15-year-old sophomore at the school, has been charged with multiple felonies in the attack that killed Justin Shilling, 17; Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; and Tate Myre, 16. Three students remain hospitalized with gunshot wounds, but are all in stable condition, and four of the injured were discharged, according to officials.
Crumbley - who has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder, 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony and one count of terrorism causing death - could face life in prison if convicted.
Officials have not shared how they believe the suspect obtained the semiautomatic handgun, which authorities say his father purchased at a local gun shop four days before the shooting.
School districts across the state began announcing plans to cancel classes Wednesday night. Pat Watson, superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools, advised parents of school closings Thursday and Friday after the district and other communities “received numerous reports of threats of violence circulating on social media” this week.
“Please take care of yourselves and one another,” Watson wrote in a letter posted to the district’s website.
Students at South Lake High School in St. Clair Shores, Mich., were evacuated Thursday after Michigan State Police combed the building following a bomb threat. Authorities said the there was no evidence of a device in the building, but the investigation is ongoing.
Other districts announcing closures on Thursday and Friday expressed similar concerns. The Troy School District canceled classes Thursday after officials learned about a Snapchat message of a rumored threat to a school in the area, according to the Detroit News. Holly Area Schools also “received multiple reports of a potential shooting threat” on social media, as did Lake Orion Community Schools.
“While continuing our students’ education is important, having a safe learning environment is our top priority,” Ben Kirby, superintendent of Lake Orion Community Schools, wrote to parents in announcing school closures Thursday.
Police and educators across the state announced some arrests stemming from the copycat threats. A 17-year-old student at Flint Southwestern Classical Academy in Flint, Mich., was charged Thursday with threatening to shoot up the school, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said in a statement. Leyton said the female student is accused of recording and posting a rap video on social media while she was on a school bus in which she allegedly threatened an attack at the school “like Oxford.”
She is charged as a juvenile on one count of a false threat of terrorism, as well as one count of using a computer to commit a crime, according to the prosecutor’s office. Both charges carry prison sentences of 20 years.
“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.”
At the Southfield Regional Academic Campus in Southfield, Mich., a 17-year-old male student is expected to face charges after he allegedly brought a gun to school Wednesday, police said. In Sterling Heights, Mich., police arrested a girl who allegedly made a threat to “shoot up” Sterling Heights Stevenson High School. She is also expected to face charges, authorities said.
Bouchard, the Oakland County sheriff, stressed that the volume of false threats was “overrunning our resources.” While he expects that classes will resume Monday, the sheriff said it would be up to the districts and schools to decide.
Timothy Waters, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, said at a Thursday news conference that the agency is tracking 25 threats across the state, 13 of which have been “fully vindicated.” Waters acknowledged that this week has been “the most challenging” period for him and his team in the 21 years he has worked in the area.
“There’s a lot of people out there that are concerned, and they have every right to be,” Waters said. “There’s nothing more horrific than our children being at risk the way they were on Tuesday.”
The Washington Post’s Kayla Ruble, María Luisa Paúl, Paulina Firozi and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.