'We can't afford to guess' | Investigators see increased reports of potential school shooters
It seemed like it might be an easy question to answer: How does the FBI investigate when it gets reports of potential school shooters and have there been any similar reports in the Inland Northwest?
Author: Whitney Ward
Published: 12:11 AM PDT May 8, 2018
Updated: 7:10 PM PDT May 8, 2018

SPOKANE, Wash. – Reports of threats and suspicious behaviors to local law enforcement and the FBI spiked after the shooting at Freeman High School in September 2017 and again in February after the shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Law enforcement officials said it is good that people are reporting these things. It also makes it even more difficult to figure out which ones are just talk and which ones are a legitimate threat. Deputy Mark Gregory has been with the Spokane County Sheriff's Office for almost 18 years. He has responded to countless crimes and one school shooting, at Freeman High School.

“Because of seeing that, none of us would ever forget that. We can't afford to make the wrong choice. It does hit very close to home,” he said.

KREM 2 asked both the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, and the FBI's Spokane field office for specific numbers on threats, but it turns out, neither agency tracks school threats specifically, even though they say they come in consistently.

“Some threats that come in contain no criminal violation. There's nothing we can do there. Others contain a threat, and maybe when we run that down, it was an offhand comment and nobody really meant to do anything. But it's still a threat,” Supervisory Senior Resident Agent Christian Parker said.

They still run down the tip and look into each call.

“We don't have the luxury of saying, 'Yeah, I don't really believe that.' And so we've gotta look at it,” Parker said.

There are the rare cases of a potential shooter who intends to become an actual shooter. KREM 2 asked FBI officials what happens when someone calls their tip line and reports suspicious behavior, says they know the person has access to a weapon and they think the person is serious.

“That's going to vary in each situation, but we're going to conduct records checks, and coordinate with local law enforcement to find out everything we can find out about the individual. If they have a criminal history, firearms registered to them,” Parker said.

He said even if a tip comes directly to a local field office, their first call is to local law enforcement, which follows a similar process.

“We would either assign it to a deputy, or assign it to the school resource deputy and they would start looking into it from there,” Gregory said.

Gregory said he is still dealing with these calls often.

“It has died down. We saw a spike after the Parkland incident, and really, it's been up since Freeman,” he said.

It is also up because of social media. Today, a single post on Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram spreads like online wildfire. It happened earlier in the school year in the Mary Walker School District in Stevens County. Classes were canceled one day after a message was shared hundreds of times. Turns out, it was just a hoax that originated on the other side of the country.

There were also multiple online and text threats in 2017 in Coeur d’Alene. The district brought in additional security measures temporarily and one student was eventually arrested. Investigators said, before anything, they first have to figure out where the threat originated and that is not always easy.

“There are times that it can tie up a lot of resources. We've had detectives, deputies working on it. The one I'm thinking of, we had probably six to eight guys working on it continually for most of the morning. And it ended up, thankfully, being nothing,” Gregory said. “We take every one serious because we can’t afford to guess.”

The same goes for the schools themselves. Since the start of 2017, KREM 2 learned there has been just one threat in Coeur d’Alene, Mead has had 16, Central Valley has seen 33 and 29 in Spokane. These numbers are not a direct comparison because each district counts and categorizes threats differently. Each one was investigated by the district as well as law enforcement.

“We get our information from the public. But at the same time, it's important to contact local law enforcement. And if you're aware of an immediate threat, 911 is the first place you need to call,” Parker said.

He said it is important to remember, it is not just police or the FBI, we can all play a role in preventing school violence.

“This isn't the law enforcement officer speaking, but the human being speaking. We can do better at being kind. We can do better at looking out for each other. It can happen here,” he said.