Since the mass shooting last month that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla, scenes of gun threats, scares and lockdowns have played out around the country dozens of times each day. Schools in New Jersey, Michigan, California and Texas have reported a threat of violence, a scramble by police, a rush by school officials to secure a school and the ripples of fear that follow.
Communities find themselves navigating a fine, sometimes blurred, line between vigilance and overreaction. A high school in Westport, Conn., was evacuated after a student was overheard threatening a teacher. Worries over a toy gun caused a lockdown at three schools in Arlington, Tex. In Pensacola, Fla., a middle school went into lockdown after a rumor spread that there was a gun inside the school, terrifying students; the rumor turned out to be false.
Attentive school administrators are facing a daily dilemma: Take every possible threat seriously and risk a needless disruption to the school day, a noisy police response and a crush of worried parents. Or, ignore what could be a real threat and risk the nightmare of your school becoming the next Parkland.
‘The World Had Changed’
In Fulton, a city of 3,300 people just across the river from Iowa, Tuesday morning began like any other.
Students showed up for classes at Fulton High, a low-slung brick building where a red sign in front heralds its team name, the Steamers.
Mr. Tennyson, a burly, gregarious former police officer known to his students as “Mr. T,” was making his usual rounds through the hallways, passing rows of shiny lockers where students had fastened Post-its with inspirational messages. (“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud,” one read.)
Before he became a principal, Mr. Tennyson, 48, spent years as a school resource officer in suburban Chicago. He vividly remembers the day of the Columbine massacre in 1999, when he watched news reports from the high school where he was responsible for student safety.
“We just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how could this ever happen in a school?’” Mr. Tennyson recalled. “I knew that the world had changed.”
Since the Florida shooting, schools around the country have seen an uptick in threats, incidents of violence and false alarms reported in the media. A group that tracks such reports, the Educator’s School Safety Network, says an average of 70 incidents have occurred daily in the weeks since the Florida shooting, as compared to a more typical pace, of about 10 to 12 incidents a day. Hard to measure, though, is how many of these incidents represent an increase in false alarms, due in part to heightened vigilance, and how many reflect a new surge in truly dangerous threats.
On Tuesday morning, when Mr. Tennyson read the messages on the worried Fulton High student’s phone, he instantly knew who was involved. This high school is small — 288 students — and the student who had handed over her phone told him that the messages were from Blake Dornbush, an 18-year-old who graduated from Fulton High last year and had played on the football team.
In the eyes of Mr. Tennyson, who knows all of his students, he and Mr. Dornbush had a great relationship. But it had been almost a year since they talked.
“I don’t know what’s going on with his life,” Mr. Tennyson said. “I don’t know what’s changed. I don’t know the stressors in his life. There’s no way for me to determine anything that’s going on with Blake in the last year.”
He picked up the phone and called the police.
In Lockdown, Waiting
The Fulton Police Department is housed in a former bank, eight blocks from the high school.
Lt. Donnie R. Pridemore was on duty Tuesday morning. At 11:05 a.m., he got word of a threat at the high school, and when he heard the name of the suspect, Mr. Dornbush, he made an instant connection. This was Fulton. The lieutenant knew Mr. Dornbush’s parents.
Lieutenant Pridemore immediately told school administrators that if they had not yet gone into lockdown, they should now. The elementary, middle and high schools in Fulton instituted a “soft lockdown,” where students are kept in their classrooms and out of hallways.
Jenna Schrader, 18 and a senior, was in the library. She was calm, she said later, reasoning that if the situation was truly dire, the school would have gone into full lockdown with even more extreme measures.
After 45 minutes, though, other students began to grow nervous, she said.
“You always think about what could happen,” she said.
As the students waited, police went to Mr. Dornbush’s home, a pale yellow house with burgundy shutters, where he lived with his parents. Nobody was home.
Mr. Dornbush’s parents, called by police, told them that their son was at school. The Midwest Technical Institute in Moline, Ill., where he is studying welding, was a short drive down the river.
After a while, Mr. Dornbush returned a call from police on his phone and drove up Route 84 from Moline under strict instructions from the officers. Trailed by unmarked police cars, he drove directly to the Fulton Police Department, where he was interviewed about the Snapchat messages, the police said. Lieutenant Pridemore said he arrested Mr. Dornbush, who was charged with two counts of felony disorderly conduct.
Mr. Dornbush was booked into the Whiteside County Jail, where he would remain until Wednesday afternoon, the authorities said, when he was released on $25,000 bond. Mr. Dornbush did not respond to messages, and a woman who answered the door at Mr. Dornbush’s house on Thursday declined to talk. He has yet to enter a plea in the case.
Lieutenant Pridemore said that a recent breakup with the student who got the Snapchat messages may have been behind what had happened.
“He knew what he did was wrong,” Lieutenant Pridemore said. “He didn’t have a great explanation for why he did it.”
At the Sunrise diner in Fulton on Thursday morning, as a waitress made the rounds and refilled coffee cups, one topic of conversation briefly dominated the room: the lockdown at the schools.
Melissa Werner, sitting in a booth by a window, said that her son, Blake, is a 15-year-old sophomore at Fulton High. He seemed to be fine once the lockdown was over, she said, though he was shaken while it was happening. After what occurred on Tuesday, she gave him a stern reminder.
“I told my son, ‘You have to watch every little thing that you say,’” she said. “‘People don’t know if you’re being serious.’”
Police said that before Tuesday, they had not had any contact with Mr. Dornbush, aside from a few traffic stops. They searched the Dornbush home and found no weapons.
Tod Goodell, a friend and former classmate from Fulton High, said he believed that Mr. Dornbush was harmless.
“I know Blake and I also know he would not hurt anyone,” he said in a Facebook message. “He said what he said out of anger and I know he regrets it. He wasn’t going to do anything he said he’d do.”
The uncertainty of that — whether a threat will result in violence or amount to frightening, rash talk — has sent schools into lockdowns, again and again. Belligerent claims and rumors of violence spread instantaneously in the never-slowing flood of social media. In light of the Parkland attack and other school shootings, Lieutenant Pridemore said, there is no way that police now can risk overlooking a detailed threat.
“We can no longer say, ‘Aww, he didn’t mean it,’” Lieutenant Pridemore said. “Times have changed.”
Darryl Hogue, the superintendent of the school district, said he was satisfied that the incident at Fulton High was “isolated, independent and definitely over.”
He said he has no way of knowing whether someone will follow through on a promise of violence or not.
“I think of that all the time,” Mr. Hogue said. “Was it a real threat? It was a threat enough that we had to act upon it. I don’t know the intentions of the young man.”
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