Two threats against Towson High School in two weeks have parents and elected officials concerned for students’ safety. Although Baltimore County Police have said the threats are unsubstantiated, announcements of an increased police presence and an unfinished investigation haven’t been much comfort.
The two incidents are among four threats that Baltimore County Public Schools have received so far this school year — all deemed not credible. Nearby districts have also received false threats against students and staff, part of what the Maryland Center for School Safety says has been a recent increase.
The threats against Towson High and the school system’s response have raised questions about how officials can keep the school community informed in a social media age without triggering panic over false threats — or encouraging more.
“As a parent, I understand the fear and the uncertainty they provoke,” state Del. Cathi Forbes wrote in a Facebook post on Dec. 1, after the second threat. “The Baltimore County Police Department reports this morning that the threats are ‘unsubstantiated.’ But of course, this doesn’t make them any less of a concern.”
Forbes later announced that the school’s Parent Teacher and Student Association would host a meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday about the recent threats, with representatives from the high school, the school system and the county police department. It can also be joined via Zoom.
“This is an opportunity for you to hear first-hand from police and BCPS leaders, ask questions, and share your concerns,” her post read.
In response to Forbes’ Instagram post, a user wrote: “I found it really weird how on the day of the threats, all they did was say there were more cops there, not something sensible like just cancel school that day just in case the threat is serious.”
“Or go back to zoom and install some metal detectors in the meantime,” another user responded.
On Nov. 17, a threat of a mass shooting was sent to members of the Towson High School community. Parents and school staff were informed of the threat that night by the principal, Charlene DiMino, and told there would be increased police presence. Still, some parents decided to keep their children home that day.
Police said then that the threat had low credibility. They didn’t say how many officers would be present at the school.
Two weeks later, the high school received another threat, in the form of an email saying there were explosives in the building. And DiMino, once again, assured the school community there would be an additional police presence on campus Dec. 1.
Authorities said the threats were unsubstantiated and the source of them was being investigated. Detective Trae Corbin of the county’s police department told The Banner in an email that the investigations are ongoing and that they are working with “federal partners on a case-by-case basis to identify and locate the person(s) responsible. In the meantime, the Baltimore County Police Department will maintain a police presence at Towson High School for the foreseeable future.”
Julie Henn, chair of the Baltimore County school board, acknowledged the threats have her frightened.
“We are seeing a disturbing trend of threats to schools nationwide,” she said on Facebook. “You have seen alarming recurrences of this trend, too often, here in Baltimore County. We are prepared.”
She said the county has adequate resources to respond to the threats and that law enforcement, as well as school safety professionals, follow procedure when responding.
Baltimore County isn’t the only system in the region that has received threats. Howard County Public Schools spokesperson Brian W. Bassett said the suburban district had four this year. Three of the threats were “swatting,” which the Maryland Center for School Safety defines as when someone makes a false statement about an act of violence that causes law enforcement to react.
“This behavior has been occurring across the nation and in multiple Maryland jurisdictions, with a recent increase in reports,” the center said in a statement.
In October, a caller reported that a student with a gun and a bomb was threatening River Hill High School in Clarksville, about 5 miles west of Columbia. People thought there was a shooter inside the school, which led to Howard County Police officers sprinting into the school with weapons drawn. But no evidence of danger was found.
The center said the hoaxes are inconvenient and harmful to first responders, schools and students. It takes up their resources, disrupts school operations and can cause trauma.
Hoax calls have been reported throughout the country. NPR recently found that nearly 200 schools in 28 states had received false reports that there was a school shooter, and that they appeared to be coming from a single person from overseas.
“NPR has learned that this is not the first time this apparent overseas caller may have targeted U.S. schools,” NPR reported. “In an earlier spree in the springtime, he falsely claimed bombs were in schools. The caller uses internet-based phone numbers tied to a service called TextNow. And the calls are either made from or routed through Ethiopia.”
It’s unclear if that is what is happening in Baltimore County or other Maryland districts. The center stated that when any threat of harm is made, schools must treat it seriously, “which may include responding to a reported location in order to prevent the occurrence and protect people. Local law enforcement agencies investigate these reports thoroughly and coordinate closely with State and federal law enforcement agencies.”
Anyone aware of a school-based threat can anonymously report it by calling Safe Schools Maryland at 1-833-632-7233, submitting an online form or downloading the Safe Schools Maryland app.
Baltimore County Police wrote in a statement Sunday that increased police presence would be in and around Towson High all week. Police also asked parents to speak with their children about safety and any concerns they may have.
“Please assure student(s) that many people are working to keep their school safe,” the statement read. “School Resource Officers are available during the school day should students have concerns they would like to discuss.”