SHEBOYGAN - One student posted to Snapchat. Another, in a group text.
"Gonna shoot up South," wrote the first -- according to police -- below a re-posted photo of some guns.
"LMFAO," wrote the second, in a text thread where students discussed otherwise benign plans. "I need to go shoot up the school."
Both posts were seen by adults and reported to police in back-to-back days last week, just as students returned to Sheboygan's South High School for the fall. Both students told police they were only joking. But both were arrested, anyway.
More than a dozen threats of violence are reported each day at U.S. schools, and after the harrowing scenes at places like Parkland, Sandy Hook and Columbine, local officials say they're treating all threats with the utmost seriousness: Just as you don't yell "fire" in a theater or "bomb" on an airplane, you should never, under any circumstances, say you'll commit violence at a school.
"We're taking a stance that if you make a post about shooting up a school, you're going to get arrested," said Lt. Doug Teunissen of the Sheboygan Police Department.
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That approach is in line with guidelines released this year by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Under the state's new threat assessment protocol, last week's posts would initially seem to fit the "high" threat category, which calls for "law enforcement resolution for criminal behavior" or "emergency detention for (a) mental health crisis."
The state protocol includes this example of a "high" threat level: "A boy posts a picture of a firearm on his social media page. The caption states, 'This is my only friend. We are both coming to school today. Let the bodies hit the floor.'"
After investigations and interviews, Sheboygan police announced that last week's threats were "not credible," as the accused students had said. Officials didn't lock down the school or cancel classes.
Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski said in an email Wednesday that confidentiality prevented him from disclosing many details about the cases. Law enforcement had contacted social services through the juvenile justice system, which tries to "divert juveniles from the formal system and to rehabilitate rather than punish," he said.
But the posts had other consequences. They consumed school and police resources. And however innocently they were intended, they had the potential to scare people.
"When somebody on the other end gets (the post) and they're even unclear about what it means, that can create fear, and we don't want fear in our schools," Teunissen said. "We want our kids to feel comfortable going to school so they can learn."
A March 2019 survey conducted by UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access found that more than seven in 10 high school principals heard from students that the threat of gun violence led them to miss school or have difficulty focusing in class.
An April 2018 Pew survey found that a majority of American teens, nearly six in 10, worried about a shooting happening at their school. A quarter were very worried.
And the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that the number of students who missed school in the previous 30 days because of safety concerns had increased from one in 20 in 2009 to one in 15 in 2017.
Those fears persist even as data from Northeastern University, the Department of Justice and the YRBS all show that school shootings and other incidents of violence have generally declined since their peak in the early 1990s, contrary to a common narrative about a worsening crisis.
But more than 3,000 threats were reported at U.S. schools in the 2018-19 school year, according to the nonprofit Educator's School Safety Network, which has compiled a database since 2016-17. Last fall, there were 50 reported threats at Wisconsin schools alone.
About 40 percent of school threats involve social media, said ESSN co-founder Amy Klinger, who added that Sheboygan's cases sounded "textbook."
"I can give you literally a thousand other threats that happened this past year that were exactly like that," Klinger said. "You're talking about kids who have access to social media and don't necessarily have really good impulse control, or a filter."
Those situations put officials in a tough spot, Klinger said: They can't just take a student's word for it that he or she was goofing around, but they don't want to throw the book at them if they were just kidding.
"Are we really prepared to significantly impact this kid's life because they were dumb for one minute?" she said.
Sheboygan Area School District Superintendent Seth Harvatine said situations like these show the importance of warning children about the life-altering potential of social media.
"When I was a kid, if I wanted to get a message out to friends, I had to pick up the phone and call them, or I had to write a note and mail it or send it, or I pass the note from friend to friend," Harvatine. "We didn't have that ability to do a mass, 100-kid distribution in a snap of a finger."
To stress that point, Urmanski sent households a letter before the start of the 2018-19 school year, signed by the chief of police and the sheriff, that warned a state law now required school employees to report threats, and that law enforcement would take them all seriously.
"Everyone, especially students, must know that statements or comments that may be interpreted as threats will be acted on and could greatly affect an entire school, family and individual actors," the letter read. "It is especially important to know that posts or comments on social media, even those intended to be jokes, may result in mandatory reports and criminal action."
Above all, said Teunissen, kids need to be cognizant of the hurt and fear caused by real school shootings.
And if they think for a fleeting moment that they might have something funny to say about the subject?
"My advice to kids is don't do it."