DELTONA, Fla. – A 14-year-old middle school student in Volusia County, Fla. was arrested March 1 after he reportedly said he was going to be the next school shooter. The same day, in the same county, a 14-year-old female high school student was arrested for tapping a school employee on the shoulder and saying “bang, bang.”
Two other Volusia County teen students were also arrested that day for joking in school that they had a weapon.
As education and law enforcement officials across the country try to figure out how to deal with school threats – particularly after the fatal shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people were killed – this county in Central Florida is taking a zero-tolerance approach to keep its schools safe.
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood makes no excuses for his tough and unforgiving stance on students who make threats or joke about school shootings. They will be arrested and their parents will pay for investigative and court costs.
“You wouldn’t walk into a crowded movie theatre and yell ‘fire’ and you wouldn’t walk onto an airplane and yell ‘hijack!’” he said. “So what gives you the right to stand up in the middle of a classroom and tell the teacher ‘I’m bringing my gun to school tomorrow to shoot you in the head’?”
The sheriff has arrested nearly 30 students since the Parkland shooting. The youngest defendant is 11 years old.
“For us in law enforcement, we don’t want to lose the momentum after Parkland. We lost it after Columbine and Sandy Hook,” he said. “There was this initial outrage and then everybody went back to their normal life.”
To ensure the punishment is harsh enough, he’s even making students’ families responsible for the over $1,000 it costs his office to investigate false threats.
“This is an expensive proposition to parents and it’s a shame we have to do it,” he said. “But they need to play a role in the child’s life and take responsibility.”
“I would like to see those kids get sentenced to spend a week with the families of the victims from Parkland and see the devastation that was caused to their life and see how funny it is when they come back."
All across the country, law enforcement officials are taking school threats seriously and meting out tough punishments. But some say Volusia is taking it to a whole new level – by taking a stringent approach that is incredibly unforgiving.
Charges range from misdemeanors to felonies, with some minors even being treated as adults under the law. After being arrested, a student is required to appear before a judge and social service workers for appropriate punishment, which is decided on a case-by-case basis.
“Some of these kids are gang members who pose with firearms in their Facebook photos, so they’re obviously going to be put in a whole different category than a kid who is an exceptional learning student and may have had an emotional outburst,” Chitwood said.
His strategy is being hailed by some who feel students need to be reminded that any threat, even if done in jest, will not be tolerated.
Within one month of the Parkland shooting, almost 1,500 threats were reported by students in schools across the country, and almost half of those were made over social media. Experts say those numbers are likely largely underreported because many schools handle threats internally out of fear going public would stain its reputation.
Chitwood said his office receives up to 90 reports of threats on any given day due to the increased awareness by schools and students to report suspicious behavior.
But others question Chitwood’s approach, saying it criminalizes students and is not the answer to preventing another school shooting.
“This is indeed very serious and we need to communicate that to students,” said Ken Adams, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida. “But let’s tone it down a bit and put it into perspective and figure out if there are ways to do this that don’t necessarily have to involve law enforcement as the hammer.”
Nancy Wait, Volusia County’s director of information services, said gone are the days that students would make a threat and schools dismiss it.
“I don’t think a lot of our students, especially in the middle school level, are mature enough to understand that what they’re doing is causing a major disruption,” Wait said. “Nine times out of 10 they tell you ‘I was just kidding!’ But it’s just too late, we cannot have that kind of behavior in our schools any longer.”
Wait says the schools also abide by a “concern of harms,” a sort of checklist to go through with a student to make sure they can get mental health counseling, if needed. The focus in Volusia County, she said, is not just on punishment.
“We want to discipline and take appropriate action,” Wait said. “But we also want to help them deal with whatever might be causing them to act out.”
Chitwood said that while some students are still waiting on a court date, some have already undergone intense probation, while others have been expelled from their schools and sent to out-of-state mental health facilities.
His strict punishments are even getting support from an unexpected group – some parents of the arrested students.
“I strongly agree with the measures that are being taken,” said one mother whose 14-year-old daughter was sentenced to 21 days in a juvenile detention center and two weeks of house arrest with a GPS ankle monitor for threatening to shoot school staff. “I hate that it was my child but she had some thinking time….I want every child out there to know that if you make the wrong decision, it doesn’t just hurt you, it hurts your parents.”