Sabrina Ingram was preparing her children for another day of school on Sept. 26 when all of a sudden she received an email from Thompson Junior High School, one no parent ever wants to see.
"A message from an Instagram post appearing to threaten or disrupt the safety of Thompson Junior High School was brought to our attention this evening," the email read. It was being investigated by the Bakersfield Police Department.
"When I first received the message of course I was a little scared and thinking please dear God don't let this be real," Ingram said. "You hear about this stuff more and more these days and it hurts as it is to see these parents having to bury their children in senseless acts."
Bakersfield Police Department Public Information Officer Sgt. Nathan McCauley said the post included a photo of five guns on a bed with the caption, "Why doesn’t anyone believe me!! I’M AFTER THOMPSON."
Not knowing whether the threat was credible or not, Ingram didn't know if she should send her children to school the following day. However, she took time to speak to them about the post and safety.
The following morning, an email from the school was sent to parents notifying them the BPD investigated the post and determined the threat was not credible — McCauley said the photo used in the post was taken off a Google search. Additional staff and district administrators would also be on campus.
Several students did not attend school that day, Ingram said, and though her children "were a little scared," they still wanted to go to school.
"I had that in mind not to send my child to school, but we cannot live in fear. I mean honestly it seems like our children are not safe anywhere they go," Ingram said. "But I knew that the school district doesn't take these threats lightly, so I knew they would take extra precaution. I just prayed before I dropped them off."
It's just one of the instances that have occurred this school year.
A 15-year-old male was arrested on suspicion of criminal threats against the Kern High School District in late August. He took a photo of what appeared to be a firearm and included the caption "dont go to school tmr."
In the Thompson Junior High School case, a 13-year-old boy on Oct. 10 was arrested on suspicion of criminal threats toward students and causing the false report of an emergency, according to a BPD news release.
Most recently, a person made an alleged threat against North High School on Tuesday and was arrested on suspicion of criminal threats the same day by the Kern County Sheriff's Office.
In each instance, whether the threat was deemed credible or not, law enforcement officials began an investigation.
"There’s no stone left unturned," said sheriff’s Deputy Matt Alvarez. "We can’t afford to not conduct an absolute investigation."
THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Many community members believe the number of threats made against schools keeps growing. Though no data was provided by the BPD or the Sheriff’s Office for how many threats have been made the last five years, McCauley said they have occurred each year.
A big factor recently, he says, is social media.
"We’ve had a great number of mass shootings, and they’re preying on that through social media as a joke," McCauley said. "It won’t change the fact that we’ll investigate these threats. We can’t ignore one and think it’s a ruse. It’s not a joke, and I doubt other people who have been affected by mass shootings think it’s funny."
In the instances seen this school year, when a school or district was made aware of a threat, law enforcement officials were notified. Initial steps include determining whether a threat is legitimate or not and the source.
In the Thompson Junior High School instance, the student who was arrested made the social media post through a fictitious account under another student's name who had nothing to do with the post, McCauley said. Officers were able to uncover the true student's identity through further investigation.
Even if a social media account or post is deleted — seemingly wiping any and all trace of it off the internet — law enforcement "have more means to find out the source" than the average person, McCauley added.
Legal consequences are determined on a case-by-case basis. School districts also determine appropriate action depending on each individual case, explained Bakersfield City School District spokeswoman Irma Cervantes. Schools work with the district's instructional support services office to see what are the best steps to take with a student, which can include behavior interventions.
Panama-Buena Vista Union School District board member Keith Wolaridge did not know the process the district took with the Thompson Junior High School student, but stressed the incident was taken seriously.
"Just the fact that the child would make a threat ... our society has changed," Wolaridge said. "We must take these threats seriously. We have to do better as a society."
BE IN THE KNOW
Why these threats occur is never entirely known. It could be one's way of making a cruel joke, some parents say. Or it could just be a way to reach out for help.
"They have deeper issues going on and every kid deals with problems/life situations differently. I think first off, these kids that make these threats need some kind of help offered to them immediately," said Cynthia Claiborne, whose son attends Thompson Junior High School. "There are so many kids getting bullied now it’s absolutely mind blowing to me. Kids are getting worse and more cruel these days."
Whatever it may be, McCauley believes it's important for parents to know what their children are doing online.
"You haven’t been able to go to your phone somewhat anonymously and send things out to people. Parents don't understand because they didn’t grow up with it," McCauley said. "Parents need to involve themselves. Be aware of what your kids are posting on social media."
Wolaridge added families, schools and community members all have to work together in hopes of changing the narrative with school threats since everyone has "a vested interest in safe and inviting schools."