Johnston Police Chief Dennis McDaniel confirmed Wednesday that hackers appear to be responsible for the threatening text messages that prompted the closure of all Johnston schools on Tuesday.
“As our investigation continues we are making progress in identifying the source of these threats,” McDaniel said in a statement. “This investigation is now being treated as a cyber-crime and involves hackers preying upon our worst fears in a day and age where school violence has become all too real.”
Also on Wednesday, more school districts in Iowa and in Nebraska reported receiving threats.
It appeared most of these reports were not directly related to Johnston, and some appeared to be “copycat” threats. West Des Moines police are investigating a report of one person receiving a message similar to the Johnston threats.
One school district in north-central Iowa and another in Nebraska, just across the Iowa border, closed Wednesday because of threats that did not appear to be related to Johnston.
Doug Jacobson, an Iowa State University professor who specializes in cyber security, said in an interview Wednesday that there are many ways for a person to gain the information needed to carry out threats like those in Johnston. He is not involved with investigating those threats.
A person with the knowledge to breach security measures and obtain personal information likely would also be able to send threats anonymously, like the text messages in Johnston, Jacobson said. For example, he said, there are apps that allow people to use computer-generated phone numbers.
This technology can make a perpetrator difficult to trace, Jacobson said.
Police and school officials continue to encourage the public to report any threats or suspicious behavior.
The Johnston threats remain under investigation by local police, along with the FBI and the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, McDaniel said. No suspects have been publicly identified.
Even though Johnston schools were declared safe and reopened on Wednesday, some parents still decided to keep their children at home, said Laura Sprague, Johnston schools spokeswoman. She was unable to provide attendance numbers for the school district on Wednesday.
“Anecdotally speaking, yes, we have parents who chose to keep their child(ren) home today and that’s completely up to them,” Sprague said in an email. “They can do that anytime they see fit — bad weather, illness, safety concern — it’s always a parent’s choice.”
On Monday night, several Johnston parents received anonymous text messages with threats of violence to Johnston schools or students.
Police later determined the threats were not credible. Johnston schools reopened on Wednesday, two hours late, so police could conduct security sweeps before classes started.
Johnston school operations will continue normally on Thursday, with an increased police presence at the schools, officials said.
Schools in Algona, in Kossuth County, closed Wednesday due to an unspecified threat received at about 10:15 p.m. Tuesday. Algona Schools Superintendent Marty Fonley said the threat was not related to the Johnston threats, but he declined to provide further details. Schools are expeted to reopen Thursday.
All schools were closed Wednesday in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, just across the Iowa border, south of Omaha. There was a credible threat of a school shooting posted to social media, the school district said in a statement on its website. School was expected to resume Thursday there, too.
Several other school districts and police departments also received reports of potential threats that did not cause school closures.
West Des Moines Police Sgt. Anthony Giampolo said one student received text messages similar to the threatening messages sent to Johnston parents on Tuesday.
Police are investigating, including working closely with Johnston police to see whether this message is related to the threats there, Giampolo said. The message was not a credible threat, he said, but there was an increased police presence at all West Des Moines schools on Wednesday.
In Davenport, police were investigating threats that were reported on social media regarding a possible shooting at North High School, according to a Davenport Police news release.
In Ankeny, police have received calls about potential threats, but police believe they are screenshots of the Johnston threats, mistaken for threats to Ankeny. Police are not aware of any Ankeny resident receiving text messages similar to the Johnston threats, Lt. Brian Kroska said.
In Des Moines, a student at East High School reported seeing a suspicious Snapchat message Tuesday morning. It did not contain any threat to Des Moines students, Des Moines Police Sgt. Paul Parizek confirmed, adding that the message included a photo of ammunition. That case remains under investigation.
McDaniel, the Johnston police chief, said Wednesday that he’s been made aware of similar threats being reported across the country. Some are likely “copycats and hoaxes,” but others may be related to the Johnston threats, he said.
“Unfortunately, some people may be doing copycat hoaxes as a result of what happened in Johnston,” Des Moines Public Schools spokesman Phil Roeder said Tuesday. “Whether these are pathetic attempts for attention or to get out of school, there are serious legal and academic consequences for threatening a school, no matter the motive.”