Thursday’s alleged threat against George Washington High School by a student was followed by more statewide threats, news releases, criminal charges against students, fears among parents and increased burdens on law enforcement.
The majority of threats were unfounded, investigators said, but at least four were serious enough to warrant criminal charges or other discipline. The string of statewide investigations followed a mass shooting in Florida on Feb. 14, when a gunman killed 17 people at his former high school.
There is likely a direct link between the massacre in Florida and the rising concerns in West Virginia, said Morgan County Sheriff K.C. Bohrer.
“Historically, any time that we have any sort of an active-shooter incident or bombings or anything in the country, there seems to be a lot of misinformation and a lot of pandemonium,” Bohrer said.
“And we see increases of threats ... generally not credible, but occasionally credible,” he later added.
On Friday night, his deputies charged Colby S. Woodal, 18, with threats of terrorist acts. The Berkeley Springs High School student allegedly made a threat against fellow students, according to information gathered by the FBI and the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office. Bohrer said authorities searched Woodal’s house and found nothing that could be used to actually carry out the threat.
Woodal’s arrest followed other credible threats and baseless rumors in the state, and such incidents carried through the weekend.
- Charleston police officers charged Corey Michael Duff, 18, with threats of terrorist acts on Friday. Duff was already on a suspension from George Washington High School, in South Hills. He allegedly used Snapchat, a cellphone application, to post a video of himself holding a handgun and a high-capacity magazine on Thursday night, and it was perceived as a threat against the high school. The video included a message that read, “Plenty for errbody.”
- On Friday, a juvenile used Snapchat to threaten Valley High School in Smithers, according to a news release from the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department. Charges were pending on Monday morning, the release said.
- According to the same news release, two more juveniles are facing charges after they made a separate threat against Valley High School on Sunday. “This matter will now be submitted to Fayette County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Harrah to determine appropriate criminal charges for both juveniles,” the release said.
- Word spread that a school shooting was supposedly planned for 2 p.m. at Webster County High School on Friday, according to a news release published by Webster County 911. Local and state law enforcement agencies later said there was no truth to the claim. Still, the release said, an estimated 200 students left school that day. The rumor traveled as far as Wisconsin, where a student saw it on Snapchat.
- On Saturday at about 2:15 p.m., Riverside High School announced that it learned of a potential threat the day before. An investigation found no actual threat against the school. Classes continued with the addition of extra police patrols.
- Kanawha County Schools announced a potential threat against Herbert Hoover High School on Sunday. No threat was found, and classes went as scheduled Monday with the addition of extra police patrols.
- On Sunday night, police and school officials learned of a threat against Nitro High School. A 14-year-old student allegedly made the threat, and school officials will take “the appropriate disciplinary actions,” according to a text message from Nitro Police Chief Bobby Eggleton.
- Authorities and school officials investigated a possible threat against St. Albans High School on Monday morning. “The source of the alleged threat was identified and it was determined that no threat had been directed toward the school or any of our students,” according to a message sent to parents by the school system.
- Horace Mann Middle School went on a brief lockdown Monday afternoon. A social media threat circulated among students, but it was actually a copy of the recent threat against Oak Hill High School, in Fayette County, according to an email from Briana Warner, a spokeswoman for Kanawha County Schools.
- Oak Hill High School said in a Monday news release that its school system would “prosecute anyone involved with social media posts or threats of any kind.” The release did not detail what alleged threat took place.
- In a news release on Monday, the Charles Town Police Department said it investigated a “non-specific” threat against Washington High School. Though investigators said the threat was not credible, the release said charges are pending against “the individual responsible.”
Keith Vititoe, executive director of security for the Kanawha County school district, said it’s common for threats and rumors to emerge in the week after a tragedy.
“What we have is some mass hysteria generated by constant bombardment of the issue in the news and on social media,” Vititoe said.
“Copycat” shooters are a legitimate concern, and Vititoe said parents are rightfully concerned. However, with help from social media and cellphones, bad information now stokes the rumors and pre-existing anxiety. The result is often that hundreds of students miss school, countless hours are devoted to baseless claims and, in some cases, reputations are permanently damaged.
Vititoe said two students in the county were wrongly accused of threatening their own schools. Though the rumors were untrue, those students may be treated differently by their peers.
“If there’s one thing I can ask that the community does is, if they get information about a possible threat to a school, that the first call not go to Facebook,” he said. “I mean literally, they need to call 911 or get a hold of the school.”