COLUMBIA, S.C. — Local, state, and federal law enforcement are investigating after they say a social media challenge led to threats and disruptions at schools across South Carolina Wednesday.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said the hoax that he dealt with appears to have started on TikTok, where he says there was a social media challenge calling for people to call in threats.
According to Lott, that led to one such incident at Blythewood High School. At 10:25 a.m., Lott said a call that appeared to come from the school state someone had been shot inside a classroom. That triggered a heavy response from his agency, which flooded the school with officers. The school, believing the threat was real, activated their active shooter protocols.
Videos circulating on social media showed students with their hands on the back of their heads walking out of the building while getting instructions from officers. Other students sat huddled in classrooms.
Eventually, officers determined there was no merit to the threat. At the same time, they learned similar threats had happened in districts across the state. It's believed over a dozen school systems received some type of warning.
While Lott praised the response he said it was a frightening experience for students and teachers.
"Students are upset even though it was fake, the emotions are real," Lott said. "It was like the real deal. That's what they felt."
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division issued a statement saying it was evaluating the credibility of the threats, and the FBI is also involved. They say the threat, though originating on social media, is considered 'swatting,' the practice of calling in a threat to get a police response to come to a home, business or school. They add that South Carolina is not the only state that's seen a rise in cases.
"The FBI is aware of the numerous swatting incidents wherein a report of an active shooter at a school is made," the FBI said in a statement. "Similar incidents have occurred recently across the country. The FBI takes swatting very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk."
Meanwhile, Richland School District Two, where Blythewood High is located, will have counselors at the school to help students when they return to class Thursday. Dr. Baron Davis, the district superintendent, said something must be done to address disruptions like this to schools.
"Their day of instruction is lost or ruined," Davis said. "I'm heartbroken that people continue to take this as a joke and continue to put our students at risk and employees in harm's way."
He said in those early moments, students and teachers had no way of knowing if the threat was a prank or not.
"They came to school with the intentions of bettering themselves academically or socially and then we have to deal with something like this today," Davis said. "We have to take some action. We have to have laws or legislation that will prevent (this)?"
Lott said because it's unclear of where the threat originated, federal charges could apply. Regardless, he said if law enforcement finds the people responsible, they will be arrested.
"I hope they put them underneath the jail," he said when asked what penalty they should face.