Officials: Hoaxes no laughing matter

Edward Michel, right, FBI assistant special agent In charge, Houston Division, joins local law enforcement leaders Thursday at the Brazos County Administation Building in Downtown Bryan for a news conference launching #ThinkBeforeYouPost, a program emphasizing awareness of the consequences of posting hoax threats.

In response to several threats made toward area schools in recent weeks — and a broader climate including mass shootings in Texas and beyond — the FBI and numerous local law enforcement personnel gathered in Bryan on Thursday morning for a news conference designed to encourage the public to help deter threats made to schools and other public spaces. 

Led by the FBI, a coalition of safety entities launched a new public awareness campaign titled “#ThinkBeforeYouPost: It’s Not A Joke” at the County Administration Building. 

“We need the public’s help and parents’ help and teachers’ help. Public safety is paramount,” said Ed Michel, the FBI assistant special agent in charge based in the bureau’s Houston office. Michel said that there have been five threats toward public spaces in the Bryan-College Station metro area in recent days, with 20 more occurring in the Houston area. 

Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk said clues and indicators exist in advance of most acts of mass violence. Kirk said that he is sometimes asked about the difference between law enforcement treatment of a juvenile or an adult who makes a threat of violence. 

“There is none,” Kirk said. “A dangerous threat is a dangerous threat, and it’ll be approached by law enforcement as such regardless of the age of the perpetrator.” 

Kirk also said that Crimestoppers and an app called P3Tips provide people with avenues to report concerning or suspicious behavior and/or rhetoric to law enforcement anonymously. 

“The school kids in Brazos County can use that app to share anonymously any information that’s going on on their campus,” Kirk said.

Multiple speakers uttered the refrain undergirding the campaign and called for teachers, parents, family members students and friends to internalize the notion that Internet hoaxes and other threats are no laughing matter. 

Brazos County District Attorney Jarvis Parsons said that “whether they are joking or not, we take these threats seriously, and we will do everything in our power under the law to hold these offenders accountable.” 

“Our country — and Texas in particular — has been victimized by individuals who have hurt and killed innocent civilians,” he said, citing recent mass shootings in the state. “We all feel it, because if one Texan suffers, we all suffer. ... No one deserves to think that the school they entrust their children to will become a war zone, and anyone who makes those threats, joking or not, will be subject to the full penalties that the law will allow.” 

Ryan Patrick, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said that the penalties for making threats are more severe than most young people realize, and that trying to get out of a test or pull off a prank is not worth the consequences. 

“If you make a hoax and you end up in federal court, not only is it a felony, but we also have the ability to recover all the expenses that these law enforcement agencies put out to handle these threats,” Patrick said. 

Eric Buske and Scott McCollum, who serve as police chiefs for Bryan and College Station, respectively, delivered remarks encouraging residents of their cities to be diligent and to come together and work with law enforcement to ensure public safety. 

“The key here is that we’ve got to engage our children,” McCollum said. “We are responsible — as parents, as family members, as teachers and as friends to engage those who may be in trouble and engage those who are being inquisitive or trying to be funny. They depend on us to try and understand where those boundaries are.” 

Michel also thanked a representative from the Lamar Advertising Company, which has donated billboard spaces in and near College Station for the #ThinkBeforeYouPost campaign. 

Blinn College Assistant Chief of Police Jennifer Taylor said after the news conference that students at Blinn, through online study groups, friend groups and in other ways, have worked to report concerning behavior or shared thoughts quickly. 

“Fortunately for us, the students who have come to Blinn have done an excellent job reporting,” Taylor said. “I would say that a year or two ago, people were a little more shy about reporting, but we have now that when people make comments, they are calling.” 

Taylor said that Blinn College has a Behavioral Intervention Team that allows people to anonymously submit concerns to bit@blinn.edu if they are concerned about someone’s behavior, stress levels or other form of communicated struggle. 

“We are trying to intercept them before they do something they regret — before they make a post or before they hurt somebody or themselves,” Taylor said. “It started out as a suicide prevention line, but it’s turned into everything.”

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