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After Parkland School Shooting, Schools Across The Country Plagued By Copycat Threats. Are They Real?

Dr. Adam Lankford, a criminology professor, talks to Oxygen about the scary phenomenon. Is media coverage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting to blame?

By Gina Tron
Tragedy Strikes in Florida High School Shooting

In the wake of last weekend’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, copycat threats on are on the rise. New York City has experienced a “barrage” of copycat threats. In Vermont, an 18-year-old was arrested and charged with attempted aggravated murder and other charges for expressing “his desire to cause mass casualties” at his high school. Even in Florida, not far from the Parkland shooting, a 14-year-old allegedly threatened to shoot up a middle school. Also in Florida, a 15-year-old boy threatened to kill people at several schools in Broward County, the same county where the shooting that took 17 lives took place, the Palm Beach Post reports. That teen, now facing a felony charge, said it was a joke. In fact, Educators School Safety Network says it recorded about 50 threats a day on average since last week’s shooting, NPR reports. There's certainly an uptick. 

Are the threats real? Are a bunch of aspiring mass murderers, mostly teens, just popping up all of a sudden?  In the case of a Los Angeles student who allegedly made a threat against his school, police said at a press conference that the boy has apologized and told them he was kidding. Marino Chavez, the security officer with the Norwalk La Mirada School District, who reported the teen, responded, “I said, well you can't say those things on a school campus.”

Dr. Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama, tells Oxygen that the validity of the copycat threats should be determined on a case by case basis but did say that actual copycat shootings, not threats of them, actually don’t tend to emerge until typically around two months or more after the “influential” shooting.

“I haven’t specifically studied people who make anonymous threats that they have no intention of carrying out, but I’d hypothesize that they get a perverse sense of excitement and thrill from seeing people get scared by the anonymous threat they made,” Lankford tells Oxygen. “ In some sense, this could be a much more extreme (and illegal) version of the tendency some people have to hide and then jump out of the dark to scare someone, specifically to provoke a fear-based reaction. There is a sense of empowerment and excitement in having triggered an involuntary response ... and they get the idea from seeing people’s response on the news to a real school shooting. That fearful reaction and sense of chaos excites them, so they want to see it at their own schools, from people they know.”

Scientists have said that up to 20 to 30 percent of mass shootings are attacks triggered by other massacres, according to a report written by researchers at Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University. The report indicated that the inspiration incubation period for a seed to be planted in copycats lasts about 13 days from the day that the initial attack took place. However, that’s just the seed, not the event.

“I think the clearest cases of copycat shootings don’t occur immediately after,” Lankford says.

Copycat threats, on the other hand, do appear to occur in the immediate aftermath. So, while the phenomenon of copycat killings is very real, it’s uncommon for them to happen this soon after a mass shooting.

Is it because of the coverage?

Lankford tells Oxygen that anyone held to a celebrity status, whether in a positive light or not, are influential.

“Celebrities, particularly in America have a profound amount of influence,” he says, adding that the media inadvertently acts as free advertising for mass killers and for their copycats down the road. He would like to see the shooters’ names and faces be published less during media coverage of such tragedies.

[Photo: Getty Images]

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