In the past month, school officials have installed metal detectors at the entrances of Lee County and Southern Lee high schools. Every student and guest must pass through the detectors to enter the school. “We have entrances for bus traffic, car traffic and student parking traffic,” said Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan. “Everything we do is in coordination with the sheriff’s office — the preparation, the planning, the practicing of various safety and security drills.”

Local schools have been inundated with threats (like bomb scares and weapon warnings); each distraction requiring serious law enforcement response

By Gordon Anderson

In some ways, the 2022-23 school year in Lee County — at least with regards to the two traditional high schools, Lee County High School and Southern Lee High School — may be remembered as the year of the threat.

It all started on Nov. 4, when word spread throughout the community that something was happening at Lee County High School.

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That something was undefined to begin with, as some said they’d heard reports of an active shooter, while others heard it was a bomb threat. In any case, it didn’t take long for dozens of parents who’d been texting with their children to quickly converge on a dirt lot across from the school as law enforcement guarded the front door and other points of entry and exit.

Students could be seen through windows communicating with those outside and law enforcement quickly got the word out that there had been an anonymous bomb threat called in. Officers didn’t take long, all things considered, to deem the threat non-credible after an exhaustive search of the campus, but the experience was jarring enough for everyone involved that school was dismissed early that day.

Nobody knew it at the moment, but it was just the beginning. Through April 28, threats reported to the schools (some have been described as bomb threats, while others are characterized more vaguely as threats of violence) have initiated lockdowns and campus searches seven more times since that day in early November — six total at Lee County High School and two more at Southern Lee. In one case, classes were canceled a full day ahead due to a threat that came late in the evening.

Crissy Miller has three children in local schools, including twins who are seniors at Southern Lee. She has vivid memories of hearing about each threat, in real time, from her children.

“For me, the first reaction is ‘oh my god, what’s going on,’” she said. “And there’s a rational voice in my brain saying bomb threats usually don’t come to pass.”

Then, in the commotion, she saw her daughter was calling her. The call was accidental, but enough to cause some alarm.

“In that moment, what went through my mind was all the news stories you see about kids calling their parents to tell them ‘I love you,’ and saying goodbye,” she said. “It kind of made me a wreck the rest of the day.”

Law enforcement arrested three juveniles in April in connection with making some of the earlier threats, but it hasn’t stopped them from coming in — a threat came in to Southern Lee the day after the first arrest was announced, and the most recent threat to LCHS was reported on April 25.

To be clear, none of the threats reported since November has turned out to be credible, and no students or staff have been harmed. In that sense, these false threats might be characterized as the modern day equivalent of pulling the school’s fire alarm and subsequently disrupting the school day.

Law enforcement and the schools’ administrations, obviously, see it as something far more serious.

“Kids need to understand, and we need their parents to make sure they understand that this isn’t a game, and we’re going to do everything we can to prosecute in these cases,” Lee County Sheriff Brian Estes told The Rant. “We don’t want to ruin their lives, but they have to know there are very serious consequences when they do something like this.”

One teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke to The Rant about their experience with the repeated threats, noting that some of their peers’ spouses were pushing them to look for new careers due to concerns about safety.

“It’s made it so whenever the intercom comes on at an irregular time, I start to panic,” the teacher said. “I know a few teachers who have updated their wills.”

A bomb threat at Lee County High School back in November led to confusion among students and parents, as some thought the threat was an active shooter. The confusion led to a large group of parents gathered outside of the school waiting for their children to be released. Said one parent at the time: “[My son] texted me and said he was barricaded in a classroom. Barricaded. One classmate was in the closet, another was in the bathroom. That didn’t sound like a bomb threat to us.”

The issue isn’t one that’s unique to Lee County. Estes noted that in at least one instance, Western Harnett High School received a threat identical to one received the same day locally. And both New Century Middle School and Sandhills Community College in Moore County received threats in April. Authorities in Moore County made an arrest in the Sandhills Community College case.

Estes said even private businesses have reported similar threats, and they’re treated the same.

Asked about the nature of the various threats — whether they’ve come in live phone calls, voicemail messages, social media, or through other methods, Estes said, “It’s a little bit of everything.” District officials pointed to the “Say Something” system, a no-cost program developed by Sandy Hook Promise in the wake of the shooting there in 2012 to teach “middle and high school students to recognize the warning signs of someone at-risk of hurting themselves or others and how to say something to a trusted adult to get help,” according to the Sandy Hook Promise website.

Another measure taken in response to the various threats is the installation of metal detectors at the traditional high school entrances that every student must now go through upon arrival.

“We have entrances for bus traffic, car traffic and student parking traffic,” Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan. “Everything we do is in coordination with the sheriff’s office — the preparation, the planning, the practicing of various safety and security drills.”

In the cases where arrests have been made, the suspects have been charged with a variety of felonies. But because they’re juveniles, their identities aren’t known to the public and the cases will be prosecuted out of the eyes of the public.

Both the sheriff and the superintendent said it’s important for the public to know that the cases are being treated seriously by not just the criminal justice system, but also the district, which says “very significant” consequences have already been imposed on the students thought to be responsible. Still, given the current state of technology, tracking down those who make the threats can be difficult.

“Sometimes they’re spoofing numbers, having them come in as spam calls, it could even show up as coming from another country,” said Major Bryan Allen of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s affecting more than the schools — the elderly, the disabled. We’ve had reports where people are getting spam calls telling them to come to Walmart because there’s a warrant out for their arrest.”

Two resource officers, LCHS principal Betsy Bridges and, on this day, Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan at the entrance of Lee County High School.

Allen also stressed the impact frequent threats against the school have on students and teachers.

“You really have to praise the kids,” he said. “At both high schools, they’ve been very receptive as far as listening to the instructions and doing the things they’ve been taught over the years. We know it’s aggravating and scary for them.”

When a threat is reported at a school, the first people made aware are the principal and the school resource officer, one of whom is stationed at each of Lee County’s 17 public schools. From there, the SRO has the discretion to call for a lockdown and investigation. From there, the district begins a process of communicating with parents and the public that includes robocalls, automated text messages and emails, and social media.

“It can vary a bit depending on the situation, and some of that involves making sure we understand the situation as much as possible,” Bryan explained. “And the situations unfold so quickly that we can put out a social media message and two or three minutes later things have changed.”

Allen said, like the situation with Miller and her kids, the fact that basically everyone has a cell phone today complicates the rush to get good information out.

“It really affects the parents, because they start hearing from their kids right away,” he said. “Every time this has happened, I’ve gotten 15 or 20 text messages from parents I know asking what’s going on. And I’m not the only one.”

Miller said she wonders about the toll the repeated threats have had on children in the schools.

“When they’re in it, they sound nervous,” she said. “I came home that day and (one of her children) was already there. I went and hugged her, and she was like ‘oh my god mom, it was just a bomb threat.’ But she’s also told me in the past that she had a plan for what to do if a shooter came. I didn’t have plans like that when I was in school. We had tornado drills. It’s really sad that they have to think like that.”

— additional reporting by Lily Jones