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Peninsula schools respond to social media threats involving clowns, officials say

Schools in Hampton and Newport News saw more police and security officers in the halls Friday after threatening posts appeared on social media.

Hampton police said in a news release that the threats did not appear to be credible and are following a national trend of people dressed as clowns causing scares. More officers were sent to schools as a precaution, however.

Newport News police issued a similar statement. Spokesman Brandon Maynard said the department was taking every step to ensure the safety of faculty, students and staff.

An Isle of Wight parent told officials at Smithfield High School that her child showed her a threatening clown post on social media, but officials could not find the post, according to school spokeswoman Lynn Briggs. She said school officials notified the Sheriff’s Office anyway.

“We didn’t see it firsthand, but in light of everything that’s going on related to these threats and clowns, especially in neighboring divisions, we just didn’t want to dismiss it,” Briggs said.

Lieutenant Tommy Potter said they didn’t find any of the social media posts and aren’t aware of a credible threat to county schools.

Newport News police did not share the threatening posts or say exactly where they saw them, but Maynard said he saw some of them on Instagram. He added that police learned of the posts through social media and word of mouth.

Four Newport News schools were directly named in two separate Instagram posts, school spokeswoman Michelle Price said. Woodside High School was named in the first post, and three middle schools — Crittenden, J. M. Dozier and Mary Passage — were named in a second one, she said.

Ashley Jenrette, a spokeswoman for Hampton police, said she did not see the posts specific to Hampton schools, but she looked up similar threats that occurred elsewhere in the country and thought many of the posts seemed mostly the same. She also said not all the posts are threatening, but they’re usually “creepy.”

In Hampton, only two schools — Hunter B. Andrews Pre-K-8 and Phenix Pre-K-8 — were specifically named in threats, according to Diana Gulotta, a spokeswoman for Hampton schools. Parents of students at the two schools were notified of the threats and increased police presence Friday morning. The notice also stated that the threats were not determined to be credible.

Additionally, the school system notified the parents of students at the four city high schools that were also targeted, just not called out by name, as an added precaution. Gulotta estimated that five parents had called by 10:30 a.m. to ask about the threats.

Gulotta said the threats did not appear to be unique to Hampton schools — it looked like a person had made the post with the name of a school somewhere else in the country and that someone had replaced the original school with the names of two Hampton schools.

The creepy clowns were first reported in South Carolina in late August, and from there the claims spread across the country. A sighting in Pennsylvania this week was linked to the fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old, according to the Associated Press.

Both Newport News and Hampton police warned that wearing a mask in public is a felony in Virginia for anyone older than 16. Virginia law also states that threats of bodily harm, even over the Internet, to people on school property is a felony.

Staff Writer Hillary Smith contributed to this report.

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