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When a Burlington County woman foiled a potential school attack in Kentucky in October, she said she was “protecting my babies” by reporting online harassment to police.

But in a time when threats can be shared quickly across social media — and across state lines — police now must investigate every lead to weed out the true threats from the viral hoaxes.

Koeberle Bull, of Lumberton Township, told police that Dylan Jarrell had posted offensive Facebook comments aimed at her three children, who are biracial. When Kentucky authorities found Jarrell, he was leaving his driveway with a firearm, more than 200 rounds of ammunition, a bulletproof vest, a 100-round high-capacity magazine and a “detailed plan of attack,” Kentucky State Police said.

“I’m just so thankful everyone is OK,” Bull told The Associated Press. “We need to do more to protect our babies.”

Like Bull’s experience, the advent of Facebook, Snapchat and other social networks has triggered a change in policing, especially while dealing with threats of violence in schools. More than 219,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine High massacre in 1999, according to a Washington Post database last updated Oct. 29. 

After his arrest, a review of Jarrell’s phone revealed information pertaining to “threats of bodily harm against multiple persons at a school,” according to his arrest citation. It did not specify which school was threatened, the AP reported.

South Jersey hasn’t been immune.

In early October, Stafford Township police dealt with a threat of school violence shared on social media after a Snapchat video was circulated that appeared to show a gun and had the text "be ready @ school on tuesday."

Because the post went viral, it was shared in the township, but investigators gleaned that it had nothing to do with the area, as the post had originated in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Stafford police Chief Tom Dellane said the quickness of social media has its benefits, like getting information out in real time, but it also has its drawbacks.

“The concerning end of it is that school-age children in particular, due to the instantaneous nature of social media, are reposting things without thinking it through,” he said.

Police spent eight or nine hours trying to investigate the post from the October incident, he said.

“We spend some time chasing our tail in that regard, but we take everything seriously,” he said. “The earlier we can get involved, the earlier we are notified, the quicker we can begin our investigation.”

In an incident in Barnegat Township in May, police found an unidentified person living in Florida had posted a clip of the movie "Scarface" on social media along with text saying it was going to “get lit” that night. A 13-year-old Russell O. Brackman Middle School student responded by writing, “It’s gonna get lit at school tomorrow.”

Students at the school forwarded the post to parents, teachers and the Barnegat Police Department, who investigated and found there was no threat of violence.

Barnegat police Chief Keith Germain said there have been many cases where social media has been used as a tool for the department, as a means to circulate information, but it’s also easy for false information to spread.

“In that case, it was important to get the factual information out there because parents, in this age, have hyper-vigilance about their kids' safety in school,” he said. “A couple kids saw it and did the right thing. They brought it to the attention of the staff at school and their parents.”

But even though investigators found there was no real threat to the students in that instance, Germain stressed police need tips like that to work effectively.

“The unsubstantiated rumors gain traction rather quickly, but we don’t want to dissuade people from contacting us when they see something on social media,” he said. “I’d rather run down 1,000 false rumors than miss one tip where someone was afraid to bother us or afraid to call.”

Contact: 609-272-7241

Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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