The Oxford shootings sparked many school threats. We asked a former FBI agent about copycat cases.
After the shootings at Oxford High School, dozens of other school districts across the state received copycat threats through social media on Thursday and Friday. Many districts closed because of those threats and some remain closed Monday.
For a look at how fake threats are investigated and prosecuted, Michigan Radio turned to Andy Arena. Arena is a former FBI agent who spent more than two decades working for the bureau, including several years as the special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit division. Today, Arena is the executive director of the Detroit Crime Commission, a non-profit organization.
In an interview with Morning Edition, Arena said tracking down the threats is a challenge that's amplified by the number of threats that sometimes come in after an incident like the one in Oxford.
"There seems to be a rash of these things and for whatever reason. Kids want to get off school. They think it's cool. They look at the publicity that this this shooter got, or whatever the driving factor is. We always see an uptick. Law enforcement obviously has to take each one of these seriously and run them down," he said. "It takes law enforcement resources away from really more serious and actual threats that are out there."
A post-9/11 approach to cases
Although today's fake, copycat threats are often made online, their nature is similar to other types of threats through the years.
"We always see an uptick. Law enforcement obviously has to take each one of these seriously and run them down."Former FBI Agent Andy Arena on copycat threats after a shooting
"This is really nothing new. I'm a little bit older, but when I was a kid, somebody would pull the fire alarm if they weren't ready for an exam or they wanted a day off. There was calling bomb threats into the school," Arena said.
One thing that has changed is the laws used to prosecute people who make the threats. In a case in Flint after the Oxford shootings, a 17-year-old was charged with false threat of terrorism, a 20-year felony. Arena said tying terrorism into the these types of cases is something that started to happen after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
"In the wake of the September 11 attacks, many states, Michigan included, enacted these terrorism statutes. They're a little more broad, I think, than than the federal definition of what terrorism is," Arena said. "Michigan's statute is much broader. And so I think it's used a little bit more frequently than you would see on the federal level or particularly in other states."
Arena said authorities are using tough charges hoping they'll be a deterrent against more threats. Many copycats are teenagers, and Arena doesn't think their age will factor into the charges brought against them. But he does think their youth might factor in later in the prosecution.
"I'm sure in the sentencing phase or how you're going to actually deal with these individuals, the age will come into play," he said. "But in the investigation, it really can't."
Looking for warning signs
Arena has three daughters and understands how copycat threats can add to the fears many parents were already feeling after the shootings. He says local law enforcement, school administrators, and students have to take their emergency training seriously. Arena believes it helped keep the situation in Oxford from being even worse.
"Schools have always been a safe place for us. Obviously, that has changed over the years. When I was a kid, there was bullying. But the bullying ended when you went home. There was no social media to to allow it to follow you everywhere you went. So we can't let it run our lives. The potential is out there. We just have to trust the training. We have to trust law enforcement and trust our kids," he said.
"I talk to my children a lot about this. It's not a discussion that my parents had to have with me. And I tell my kids, 'Take that [active shooter] training seriously. If you see something. Let somebody know. Let me know.' In hindsight, when these situations occur, we look back with 20/20 vision. There were always signs, right? We're seeing it, in this case at Oxford. Hopefully if you see something, you tell somebody, and we can avert a situation like this in the future."