Arkansas High Schools Receive "Copycat" Threats Following Florida Shooting

Feb 16, 2018


Threats of gun violence have resulted in arrests at a handful of Arkansas schools in the days following a mass shooting at a Florida high school.

School district officials in Fayetteville and Gurdon said local police are investigating both online and verbal threats of violence reported to school administration. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported schools in Berryville, Mammoth Spring and Star City saw similar threats since the Feb. 14 mass shooting and reported them to police.

Fayetteville Public Schools spokesman Alan Wilbourn said police determined the student determined not to carry out an attack, yet was arrested for making the online threat. Gurdon School District Superintendent Allen Blackwell said a Gurdon High School student made a direct comment to another student, who then informed administrative staff. 

Both officials noted police investigations of the threats are ongoing, and disciplinary action ranging from suspension to expulsion is pending.

One researcher has been studying the effects of mass shootings and ensuing media coverage on the likelihood of similar attacks and threats. Dr. Sherry Towers said her background as a statistician looking at the spread of disease has informed her research into the idea of a "social contagion" inspiring related incidents following a mass shooting.

"Many aspects of what we do as humans are actually ideas that we've been infected with," Towers told KUAR News. "The types of clothes we wear, the kinds of foods we eat, the religions that we follow, our voting preferences are ideas that we've been infected with through exposure to people we've grown up with, through the friends we have, through what we see on media, including social media, things of that nature."

Towers is a research professor at the Arizona State University Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center. She noted individuals with access to weapons and underlying mental health issues are more likely to carry out attacks immediately following recent incidences of violence.

"I don’t even know if people who are that mentally ill actually can explain to you what's going on with their thought process, but we certainly see it in the data that there is this clustering together in time that seems to be pointing to the fact that it is evident that people do see these things in the media and they get affected with the idea to try to perpetrate a copycat event," Towers said.

Through her research, Towers identified a period of 13 days following a mass shooting in which there is an increased probability of a similar event or threat. Towers noted this only applies to incidents with widespread media coverage, as the vast majority of gun violence does not receive national attention.

"What we've found is that it appears that this is not a local phenomenon. When we look for local clustering of these things, we don't see them," Towers said. "What we see is temporal clustering, clustering in time where we see it's more likely, in that first few days after one of these events has happened, much more likely that another event, a similar event, will happen than you would expect just by pure random chance."

Towers cited a 1996 Congressional moratorium on federal funding for firearm violence research as an obstacle in doing further studies. Another setback, according to Towers, is the ubiquitous media coverage of mass shootings.

"Part of it is our need, as humans, to try to understand what would drive somebody to do what most of us would think is unthinkable, but I think unfortunately part of it starts to border on lurid entertainment," Towers said. "My personal view is that I do see some things that the media covers that I find to be a little bit over-the-top and likely part of the problem in helping this copycat effect."

Schools in Ohio, New York, Vermont and Tennessee also received similar threats by students in the days following the Florida shooting.