Increased police presence at Warren County schools to continue after new threat

A Warren County Sheriff's Office deputy stands outside the Skyline High School parking lot Friday afternoon with school personnel. The Sheriffs Office increased its presence at all county public schools Friday and plans to continue until the end of the school year. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Despite the online proliferation of a screenshotted Facebook conversation that warned — falsely,  it turned out — of school shootings at several Warren County schools, all county schools opened and operated as normal Friday.

An increased number of Warren County Sheriff’s Office deputies were stationed at all public county schools Friday, Sheriff Daniel McEathron said, an action that will continue throughout the remaining school year.

The conversation in question mentioned “massive shootings” at “wcms,” “sms,” “shs” and “wchs.”

This latest threat comes on the heels of a bomb threat against Warren County Middle School Thursday and an anonymous threat against “SHS” that spread across the country. Police believe the “SHS” threat originated in Springfield, Ohio, where an arrest was made Thursday.

McEathron said Friday that several students have been interviewed regarding Thursday’s threat against the middle school, but the investigation remains open and no charges have been brought.

Students at the middle school were evacuated to Warren County High School via buses for the first half of the day Thursday. Warren County Public Schools superintendent Greg Drescher said bus drivers were paid overtime.

“When somebody makes a post like that, it’s truly unfortunate but you can’t do anything but what we did yesterday,” McEathron said. “We take all that information seriously, no matter what it is and make attempts to try to locate who the originator was of it. But most of the time, it’s just somebody passing it on, and passing it on, and passing it on.”

Drescher said school personnel did not perform bag searches on students Friday, though such searches were conducted Thursday at Skyline High School.

He also said that the school did not send out automated messages to parents to inform them of the screenshots detailing the threats.

“There’s such widespread social media at this point, that I felt like virtually everybody knew about it beforehand,” Drescher said, adding that the school system is taking all threats seriously.

“You hate to slough something off and say, ‘Yeah, it’s just kids messing around,'” Drescher said. “You’ve got to take it seriously. We’ve had several other comments being made by students that are probably just an attempt at being funny, but we’re taking those seriously, too.”

Normally school attendance hovers just over 90 percent, Drescher said, but attendance on Friday dropped to 80 percent division wide. He added that middle and high schools had lower attendance than elementary schools.

Drescher asked for anyone who sees a threat or suspicious post on social media to report it to law enforcement officials, and not to aid the post’s spread by sharing it.

“If you see a posting, a Snapchat, a posting, a share, that talks about doing harm or damage, please report it, but please don’t share it again,” he said. “The repeated shares have caused us to spend more time dealing with that as opposed to actually being able to deal with the event itself … The resharing, I think, creates a hysteria that isn’t helpful.”

U.S. Representative Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, issued a statement Thursday calling for increased funding for school resource officers. The letter referenced the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, but did not mention the recent threats in Warren County schools.

“School Districts across the region have School Resource Officers who are sworn law enforcement officers who are properly trained and armed to protect the schools and students they are assigned to serve,” Comstock’s statement read. “These important officers, not only protect our schools, but, are also the eyes and ears for local law enforcement to make sure that those who want to harm our children are stopped before they are able to perpetrate a crime.”

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, sent a letter with similar sentiments to Shenandoah County public schools superintendent Mark Johnston Tuesday, encouraging Johnston to look into hiring retired law enforcement officers as “a cost effective alternative or supplement to full-time law enforcement enforcement officers in our schools.”

McEathron echoed Drescher’s message that it is critical for threatening posts to be reported to police rather than spread across social media platforms.

“This social media stuff, it just spreads so fast. It gets blown out of proportion,” he said. “You’d like for the parents to take some time and emphasize to their kids, talk to their kids, that whether they think it’s a joke or whether they say something that they don’t necessarily mean, you can’t do that … This is just not a joking matter.”