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Here's what it takes to investigate a school threat, whether it's real or fake

School threats took a toll on Hampton Roads schools last year. First responders rushed to investigate at least 150 reports of threats in 2022.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Many know first-hand what it's like to wait anxiously for the all-clear message while emergency responders investigate a report of a bomb or a gunman on a school campus.

In fact, the most recent data released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives reports half of all bomb threats reviewed in 2021 were reported against schools.

Whether it's just a hoax or an actual serious danger, first responders put the same resources into any school threat investigation. 

But just one school threat can cause students and parents to panic, which creates a cost that goes beyond taxpayer dollars and city resources.

13News Now wanted to know just how big a problem school threats are in Hampton Roads, and what it takes to investigate them.

To find out, we spoke with all seven major school systems in the region about the number of threats police departments either responded to or got notified of last year. And then we asked for insight into how officials approach investigating school threats, and what the cost is.

According to information from either city schools or police officials, in 2022 there were 150 threats of various types received across just four of Hampton Roads' seven school districts.

Virginia Beach experienced 65 threats, Chesapeake had 50, Newport News had 19 and Suffolk had 16. Officials in Norfolk, Hampton and Portsmouth told 13News Now they couldn’t track down a number.

Suffolk’s city spokeswoman said 11 out of the 16 threats received were confirmed as false or unfounded.

For context, Virginia schools must have 180 instructional days per year.

Responding to school threats

Virginia Beach School Resource Officer Tyshon McNeil said tracking down the threat source quickly depends on how the communication came in.

“Whether it is over the phone, now we have to do a reverse phone search to find out if it’s a landline or a cellphone,” McNeil said. “Was this threat made by social media? We start getting our intelligence folks involved.”

McNeil said he starts the investigation by assessing threats on school grounds.

“I can tell them to slow their response, or hey, I don’t need 10 officers responding,” McNeil explained.

However, he said threats involving a shooting or possible bomb require immediate resources.

"You could have six trucks from fire, another three from EMS, and you don’t even know how many from the police department,” McNeil said.

Rob Doran, an investigator with the Virginia Beach Fire Department, said his team jumps in when a bomb or explosive device is possibly involved.

“We typically respond with at least one, if not two, investigators and then a captain or supervisor in our office,” Doran said.

The cost of school threats

When asked what it costs for his department to respond, Doran said additional costs only accumulate when overtime is required, because generally, school or courthouse threats are made during business hours.

“If it happens during our normal workday, we will respond like we normally would to any other incident the fire marshal’s office would handle,” Doran said.

Some cities use Virginia State Police's bomb squad. A spokeswoman for VSP agreed that overtime is the factor in additional costs.

Job search engines ZipRecruiter and Glassdoor report the average bomb technician makes around $37,000 to $39,000 a year, which comes to about $18 to $20 an hour.

But school threats also have an emotional cost.

“Usually, internal lockdowns, when the kids have to stay in place, is when the panic from their side starts happening,” McNeil said. “There are tears going.”

And that emotional cost becomes time behind bars when investigators discover who made the threat.

“Whether you do it over the phone, it’s against the law,” McNeil stressed. “Whether you do it over the internet, it’s against the law.”

Injury and bomb threats are Class 5 felonies, carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine. 

Under Virginia law, any person under age 18 could spend up to a year in jail and get the same fine.

"I know the Commonwealth attorneys will prosecute it,” Doran said. “We will follow through and process it as best we can.”

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