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Palm Beach County School Police Warn of Increase in Threats, Violence on Campus

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CBS12) — The School District of Palm Beach County is warning of an increase in threats to schools and violence on campus as kids return to the classroom from post-pandemic isolation.

A letter to parents, sent in late October, warns of a “noticeable increase in the number of threats against school campuses made through social media, texts, gaming platforms, and written notifications.”

“All throughout the country -all the school districts - we’re seeing more activity in terms of threats. We’re seeing more activity in terms of fights on campus,” said School District Police Chief Dan Alexander in an interview with CBS12 News.

In a recent bulletin, The Department of Homeland Security warned that pandemic isolation may be a significant risk factor for students who may be considering committing a violent act in school. Mental health experts also point to pandemic stresses, such as social difficulties and financial hardship, which may trigger students who are already in crisis.

Alexander explained the district has what he calls “wraparound resources” including trained mental health counselors on every district campus and teachers with similar training to help students going through difficulties. He encouraged anyone going through mental health difficulties to reach out to trusted professionals at school.

The chief also added there’s been a noticeable increase in violent crime nationwide and said a portion of that filters into schools. He urged every parent or student who sees or hears of a threat to a school to report it, using new apps like FortifyFL and SaferWatch.

Both apps collect tips and send them directly into the school police’s command center, called the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC. CBS12 News took a rare tour of the TOC, which tracks nearly everything in the district, including the real-time positioning of school busses and school police officers.

The TOC also has live feeds of every security camera for each of the districts' more than 180 schools. Chief Alexander said the district is also seeing an increase in violence on campuses, like fights, in the last few months.

“If we know we have an incident that’s breaking we want to see if we get can get eyes [on it],” Alexander explained to CBS 12 News.

The Washington Post found gun crimes are particularly on the rise in schools across the country. The National Association of School Resource Officers told the Post there were 97 reported gun-related incidents in schools so far this year, compared to 29 in 2019.

“You’ll get kids that will post pictures of themselves with a gun, saying don’t go to school tomorrow,” explained Major Michael Waites, a veteran law enforcement officer whose school police behavioral services unit investigates all threats to local schools.

MAJ. WAITES: Imagine you’re at home. It’s a Friday night, Saturday night and at 3 o’clock in the morning, you have school police and whatever local agency saying 'Hi we need to talk to your kid get them out of bed.'
JAY O’BRIEN: And that happens a lot?
WAITES: More often than people think.

Waites said most parents he encounters had no idea what their child was doing or saying online. Most of the kids, he says, claim the threat was a joke. But, in the State of Florida, most threats against a school rise to the level of a second-degree felony.

“And once that’s done, that’s it, that’s a felony,” Waites said.

The School District Police are encouraging parents to stay engaged with what their child is saying and doing both in school and online. Staying involved, officials said, is key to making sure your child is making the right choices.

JAY O’BRIEN: How many of these problems could have been avoided by a parent just being a little bit more engaged?
CHIEF ALEXANDER: A lot of them.

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