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Story By John Murray

The private messages started flowing into The Waterbury Observer’s Facebook page on Monday night, December 6th. Someone calling themselves the “careerschoolshooter” on Snapchat, was posting ominous messages online.

Messages from our concerned readers included screenshots from Snapchat posts that read, “Tuesday at 11 am I’m shooting up career, and career is going to suffer a long painful death.”

Image from Atlantic Monthly.

Waterbury was not alone in having school shooting threats, and messages spiraled around social media last week with threats in Watertown, New Haven, Hamden, and schools were going into lockdown.

We forwarded the messages to Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo, who had already been alerted. The Waterbury PD had received only a partial screen shot and they were unclear if the threat was directed at Career Academy in Waterbury, or another school in another town. One of the messages we received from a reader contained a larger portion of the conversation, and it directly referenced Waterbury.

In the wake of the recent school shooting in Michigan, city officials in Waterbury had to take the threat seriously, and Spagnolo ordered a strong police presence to Career Academy the following morning.

Lt. Ryan Bessette, the public information officer for the Waterbury Police said in an email, “The Waterbury Police Department is actively investigating a threat that was made on a social media site involving a school identified as ‘Career.'”

Bessette went on to say that police are working with the high school’s administrators. A notice was sent out to parents about the situation. Bessette said there would be additional officers at the school throughout the day Tuesday.

And the pattern repeated itself the following day with copycat threats at North End Middle School and Wilby High School in Waterbury, both via Snapchat.

Thursday morning, December 9th, the Observer spoke with Chief Spagnolo while he was driving to a meeting with Waterbury School Superintendent Verna Ruffin. Spagnolo said they were going to discuss organizing a safety symposium to provide information to concerned parents and discuss different ways to handle the unfolding crisis.

Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo

While some schools in Connecticut shut down due to shooting threats, Waterbury stayed open, and went with a robust police presence to ensure safety.

“This is a problem,” Spagnolo said. “Our ability to investigate is difficult because user’s try to hide their identify with fake names. We can work with Snapchat to get at the information, but it’s not a quick process.”

Governor Ned Lamont took to the airwaves to state he was sick of the fake school shooting threats and likened it to yelling “fire in a crowded theater.”

If law enforcement can identify the culprits, Spagnolo said, it wasn’t altogether clear what to charge them with; reckless endangerment, risk of injury, or some other charge.”

In Watertown, the local police arrested three juveniles on Friday, December 10th, for threatening Swift Middle School. The police issued a juvenile summons against one student for second-degree breach of peace and second degree threatening for searching school shootings on his laptop in school, and then telling his classmates that he would take out anyone who got in his path.

Watertown Police Chief Josh Bernegger told the Republican-American newspaper on Friday, “These threats, whether a hoax or not, circulate on social media platforms very quickly, causing concern and increasing anxiety in a time where anxiety levels are already running high. Parents should discuss with their children the seriousness of making any kind of threatening statements, whether through text, verbal or otherwise.”

Another student was arrested at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven for making threats that shut down 13 schools

The arrest came as police investigated a series of alleged threats of violence that resulted in a total of at least 11 schools in the city and at least two neighboring towns going into lockdown or closing Monday on December 6th. The 17-year-old, who is a juvenile, was charged with breach of peace — a felony — and interfering with police in connection with an alleged telephoned threat at Wilbur Cross High School.

While a vast majority of school shooting threats are pranks by school age children trying to get a day of from school, every threat has to be taking with great concern. Statista Research reported on October 4th that so far in 2021 there have been 170 school shootings in the United States. This was the highest number of school shootings since 1970. Of these incidents, only six were active shooter incidents. The largest number of active shooter incidents in schools was in 2018, with 11 active shooters.

And no one in Waterbury needs to be reminded that Sandy Hook is a 15 minute drive away on I-84. Horrific tragedies happen, and they have happened in our neighborhood.

“This is a very serious situation,” Spagnolo said, “and we are doing our best to make sure that parents and students and staff are informed and safe.”

In addition to the social media threats online, there were thoughtful posts from concerned parents. On December 8th, Angie Matthis posted on Facebook, “Having two teenagers in school and hearing constant reports of school lockdowns, threats and weapons being located in the state, the anxiety is crushing. I am texting them and telling them how much I love them constantly. It’s just not right. These are children we are expecting to live in constant fear for their lives.”