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SOUTH SALT LAKE — When officers confronted a 13-year-old about a post he made on social media threatening violence at his middle school, the boy didn't think it was a big deal.
"When it was brought to his attention why we were there, he literally laughed. He started laughing," said the investigating officer, Unified Police Sgt. Melodie Gray.
"It took us a few minutes to get him to understand the gravity of what he had done, because he really thought it was just a funny joke."
She said the boy's parents, however, were devastated.
Police say the boy posted a picture Sunday on Snapchat of himself holding what appeared to be a rifle, and warning students at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School in Kearns not to come to school on Monday.
Detectives quickly tracked the boy down and learned that the gun was an Airsoft rifle and that he had no intention of carrying out the threat.
Nevertheless, police weren't laughing.
"We have zero tolerance for joking when it comes to public safety. We want the kids out there to know if you are going to be putting threats on social media, we are going investigate and ensure we seek prosecution," Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said Tuesday.
The boy was arrested for investigation of making a terroristic threat. Rather than being taken to juvenile detention, he was returned to the custody of his parents.
The incident was one of at least nine threats involving Utah schools in less than a week and were all made on the heels of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17.
In addition to Sunday's incident, Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said police have investigated two other minor threats in his district alone in just the past week. All turned out to be unfounded.
• In one case, a junior high girl made a post on Snapchat from a local sporting goods story showcasing guns in the store with a message to the effect of, “Watch out at school,” he said.
• Another case involved a high school student holding what looked like an AR-15 and posting a threat on Snapchat, Horsley said. The weapon was actually a pellet gun.
In one other case, a student overheard other students talking about a school shooting and reported it to administrators. It turned out the students were discussing what happened in Florida and no discipline was taken.
In each case, even the one where there was no actual threat, Horsley said police officers went to the homes of those students to make sure there were no weapons or threats. The parents of each student were cooperative with police.
The students from the first two incidents no longer attend those schools, he said, but declined to identify the schools.
In Kane County, officers have responded to "several potential threats of violence" in the past week, according to Kane County Sheriff Tracy Glover.
• On Monday, deputies received an anonymous tip of a potential threat at Kanab High School in Kanab. That same day, a tip was sent through the SafeUT app saying that a student had been talking about bringing a gun to Valley High School in Orderville.
Glover said additional officers were placed at both schools and at other schools in the district as a precaution. No arrests have been made but the sheriff says he's "looking at a couple possible suspects."
Other incidents from the past week include:
• On Feb. 23, a "concerning" Snapchat post from a 17-year-old girl at Timpanogos High School resulted in police interviewing the girl at her home. She faces a possible misdemeanor charge.
• On Feb. 22, a Springville High School student was arrested and booked into juvenile detention for allegedly posting a picture on Snapchat of a person holding a gun, along with a message that suggested violence. Police say the boy told officers the post was meant as "a dark joke."
• On Feb. 21, a Wasatch High School student was arrested and accused of threatening gun violence.
• On Feb. 20, police cited a student at Sandy's Eastmont Middle School after he allegedly posted a comment on social media about shooting up the school to get revenge over a friend who had ben expelled. Police do not believe the threat was legitimate.
The problem, according to both Horsley and Rivera, is that many students don't realize the gravity of what they're posting on social media, and they often don't believe many people will see the posts.
"They really do believe it will just stay with their friends," Horsley said. "Literally, the magnitude, they don't realize how big their megaphone is. They thought putting it on Snapchat, just their friends would see it and that would be the end of it. So they're not really understanding the full implications of the reach that they have through social media."
Because of that, Rivera on Tuesday announced that Unified police will be launching an awareness campaign to help students understand the seriousness of making threats on social media, even if the posts are meant to be a "joke."
"We're going to teach the kids, No. 1, that it's not appropriate to do, it's not funny and there are consequences," she said.
Those consequences could result in being charged with a third-degree felony in juvenile court for making a terroristic threat.
"You don't want a third-degree felony on your record, especially as a juvenile. It does hurt you as you move forward in life," the sheriff said.
Horsley added that the penalties for making a "joke" on social media are serious from the student's educational standpoint as well.
"This is district level discipline. This is not something you just get suspended for three days. You're generally removed from school population until you can complete a remediation program. Only then would you be allowed to return to a traditional program. And that's when you're kidding. Imagine what the circumstances would be if you're not kidding," he said.
In most cases, Horsley said students who are making these posts are teenagers who have never had any prior school discipline. In one of the Granite School District's recent cases, the suspect is a high school student with straight-A grades.
Kaysville police are currently investigating two teenagers who posted a video of one of the boys displaying guns and threatening school violence about a week before the Florida shootings.
As of Tuesday, it was undetermined whether the threat was a "joke" or if the boys had intentions of actually doing something, according to police.
The investigation began Feb. 7 when a video — apparently recorded sometime earlier on a cellphone — was posted on Instagram, according to a search warrant unsealed Tuesday in 2nd District Court. In the video, a 13-year-old boy is holding an "AR-15 like weapon" and says, "Bullying me at school, watch I’m gonna bring this to school," according to the warrant.
The video also "showed multiple other firearms displayed," the warrant states.
Kaysville police interviewed the boy, who said the guns in the video are his father's.
Detectives also questioned the second teen suspected of filming the video. Kaysville police on Tuesday said one of the boys is also being investigated for making a second school threat a week after the video was discovered.
Criminal charges against the two are pending.
Even when school threats are verified to be false, Unified Police Chief Deputy Shane Hudson said it creates a lot of fear and anxiety among students and parents, not to mention the hundreds of hours of police work it takes to investigate such claims.
Educating students about why it's not funny to post threats on social media needs to start at home with parents, Horsley said. He encourages students to report anything they see on social media that is concerning.
In January, the SafeUT app, which provides crisis counseling and an anonymous tip line for students, received 52 tips of possible incidents in January alone in the Granite School District, he said.
Sunday's arrest of the 13-year-old boy was the result of a tip by a classmate.
"That student needs to be commended because that student stepped up. And we always say, ‘If you see something say something.’ This student did just that and possibly prevented something from happening," Rivera said.