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Violent Threats to Schools and Students on the Rise

Officials say they take each seriously, but it disrupts classroom time and consumes law enforcement

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    It's a growing problem - violent threats to schools or individual students. NBC 7 Investigates looks into a new plan to punish those behind the threats. Mari Payton reports. (Published Friday, May 8, 2015)

    The number of San Diego County students expelled or suspended for making a “terrorist threat” has increased, according to data from the California Department of Education.

    Facebook, Burnbook, Yik Yak are some of the social media sites where schools and its children are becoming targets for violent threats.

    Last November, on the phone app Yik Yak, a user stated there would be a shooting at Torrey Pines High School.

    “You never think it’s going to happen in your own school,” Sallie Small, a parent of a Torrey Pines High School junior said. “And as a parent when you get that roving call, your heart drops.”

    Small's son and his classmates were placed on lockdown for three hours. Her son told her via text messages he was in a classroom “up against the wall and the lights were out.”

    The next day, a 17 year old, was arrested for the threat.

    Most San Diego County school districts say they don't track the number of violent threats they receive. But according to data from the California Department of Education, during the 2011-2012 school year, 62 students were expelled or suspended in San Diego County for making a terrorist threat. That number jumped by 35% to 84 students last school year. Click here to search the online database. 

    Those figures take into account only students who were caught making terrorist threats. The number of general threats is greater.

    From January 2014 to January 2015, schools in the San Diego Unified School District alone received 138 reports of threats to individuals or schools. Click here to see a database of the threats.

    Frequent threats led the San Diego District Attorney’s office to assemble a multi-agency team to analyze threats and stiffen penalties for those making them.

    District Attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, said, “Well I think the important thing for the kids to know is number one, when they think its anonymous, its not anonymous.”

    Last month, Dumanis announced her support for Senate Bill 456. It would create a specific crime category for threatening to fire a gun on a school campus. It also would allow for a one year jail sentence and a fine up to a thousand dollars for verbal, written or online threats against schools or students. If the threat results in an emergency response by law enforcement, the bill would also make the person convicted responsible for paying back the cost of those resources.

    NBC 7 Investigates asked law enforcement agencies how much it costs when they respond to a school threat. But NBC7 Investigates was told exact figures are not tracked. Costs could only be estimated, and according to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, they add up quickly.

    Sheriff’s spokesperson Jan Caldwell said, “Tens of thousands of dollars can be spent on a single call.”

    Chief of Police for the San Diego Unified School District Rueben Littlejohn said, “In some cases these calls can take a considerable amount of time, depending on the number of students they may need to be interviewed, if someone's home needs to be visited. “

    NBC 7 Investigates also tried to find out who what happens to juveniles arrested for making school threats. But the juvenile court judge overseeing the Torrey Pines Yik Yak case denied NBC 7’s request to attend the hearing. The only information released from law enforcement was the 17-year-old was not a Torrey Pines Student.

    “We are going to hold them accountable,” Dumanis said. “We do hold them accountable, and we, the public doesn't get to hear what that is because juvenile court is confidential, but we hold them accountable.”

    Senate Bill 456 was introduced by San Diego State Senator Marty Block. It passed the public safety committee in March and could come for a full senate vote this month.

    NBC 7 Investigates contacted Facebook, Yik Yak and Burnbook for a comment regarding school threats; no one from any of the companies responded to our emails.

    NBC 7 Investigates is working for you. If you have more information about this or other story tips, contact us: (619) 578-0393, NBC7Investigates@nbcuni.com. To receive the latest NBC 7 Investigates stories subscribe to our newsletter.