Scary-clown ru­mors shift from prank to prob­lem

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOE HEIM AND T. REES SHAPIRO

It was just af­ter mid­night Tues­day at James Madi­son Uni­ver­sity when the clown calls started pour­ing in. Phones beeped and buzzed. There was no of­fi­cial alert at the Har­rison­burg, Va., school, but on Yik Yak, Twit­ter and GroupMe, stu­dents learned of a pos­si­ble in­truder on cam­pus.

A grainy Snapchat video pur­ported to show a men­ac­ing clown out­side of Weaver Hall. Freak­out en­sued.

Some stu­dents pan­icked; oth­ers were just wary. No one re­ally thought it was funny. In min­utes, un­der­grad posses car­ry­ing flash­lights and pep­per spray roamed the Quad, seek­ing to cap­ture the clown or at least chase it off.

“Most peo­ple were mo­bi­lized to de­fend the cam­pus from the per­son inside the clown suit,” se­nior Diego Jau­regui said. “Peo­ple def­i­nitely felt safe in num­bers, and they were dis­cussing what to do if they found a clown. Which

would be to charge them and hold them down but not hurt them and call the author­i­ties.”

The JMU clown fright was just one of hun­dreds that have erupted this week at col­leges, high schools and grade schools across the coun­try, forc­ing learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions to re­spond se­ri­ously to a grow­ing na­tional hys­te­ria that many had pre­vi­ously re­garded as a laugh­ing mat­ter.

Clown fear rat­tled schools in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion this week.

Of­fi­cials or­dered a lock­down Wed­nes­day at North­west­ern High School in Prince Ge­orge’s County, Md., af­ter a clown-based In­sta­gram threat. The Loudoun County sher­iff ’s of­fice in Vir­ginia an­nounced that it was di­rect­ing pa­trols at schools in re­sponse to the clown scare. A stu­dent in Mont­gomery County, Md., brought a knife to school Wed­nes­day, re­port­edly to pro­tect him­self against any clown at­tack.

Many of the clown posts on so­cial me­dia have in­cluded threat­en­ing lan­guage that specif­i­cally tar­gets in­di­vid­ual schools. One threat in the Wash­ing­ton area re­ferred to a clown kid­nap­ping a stu­dent, plant­ing a bomb and ex­plod­ing a school. Mont- gomery author­i­ties ar­rested stu­dents who posted threats to a school us­ing a clown alias, with the prin­ci­pal of Rosa Parks Mid­dle School cit­ing it as “a great teach­able mo­ment to dis­cuss how pranks can have a neg­a­tive im­pact with se­vere con­se­quences.”

Ad­min­is­tra­tors may say that the clown threats are hoaxes, but they feel com­pelled to ad­dress them. Stu­dent safety is para­mount for school dis­tricts and univer­si­ties af­ter a seem­ingly un­end­ing string of fa­tal school shoot­ings and threats dur­ing the past two decades.

But schools have to thread the nee­dle when it comes to alert­ing par­ents without caus­ing fur­ther panic. Ar­ling­ton County, Va., Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Pa­trick K. Mur­phy sent an email to par­ents Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon that at­tempted to ad­dress con­cerns about so­cial-me­dia threats without ever us­ing the word “clown.”

The mes­sage, crafted with po­lice, was care­fully worded to not feed any hys­te­ria, said schools spokesman Frank Bellavia. “It’s a fine line,” he said.

Bellavia said that the clown sight­ings have added an un­usual twist to the kind of threats schools re­ceive via so­cial me­dia. “This was a com­pletely new one that we hadn’t seen at all,” Bellavia said.

Par­ents at Ben­ton Mid­dle School in Prince Wil­liam County re­ceived a let­ter from Prin­ci­pal Denise Hueb­ner urg­ing them to not over­re­act but also warn­ing of stu­dents who might be in­clined to copy the clown threats.

“Please talk to stu­dents and urge them to avoid be­com­ing part of the prob­lem,” she wrote. “Stu­dents found to be tak­ing an in­ten­tional role in this prob­lem will face se­ri­ous con­se­quences.”

Amanda Yanovitch, who has three chil­dren in Ch­ester­field County schools in Mid­loth­ian, Va., said the bus-stop dis­cus­sion ev­ery morn­ing cen­ters on the lat­est clown-threat ru­mors. Yanovitch blamed teens for fo­ment­ing the fear.

“It’s not even real,” Yanovitch said. “It’s 100 per­cent prank­ing, and there’s no threat or any­thing real ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing. But it’s Oc­to­ber, and it’s get­ting to be Hal­loween, and these 13-yearolds don’t un­der­stand the fears they are caus­ing par­ents, so they just think it’s a su­per-fun prank and they don’t un­der­stand the reper­cus­sions.”

Po­lice de­part­ments across the re­gion have sought to re­as­sure par­ents and stu­dents that they are mon­i­tor­ing the threats but that they are hoaxes. “We’ve found no va­lid­ity or cred­i­bil­ity to the threats,” said Fair­fax County po­lice spokesman Don Got­thardt. The Manas­sas City po­lice said Wed­nes­day evening that they had re­ceived mul­ti­ple re­ports of clowns “act­ing sus­pi­ciously” on­line and near schools but said they have “not dis­cov­ered any ev­i­dence to sug­gest a plau­si­ble threat to the pub­lic.”

Frank McAn­drew, a pro­fes­sor at Knox Col­lege in Illi­nois, has been fol­low­ing this year’s clown scare, which be­gan on­line in mid­sum­mer with un­sub­stan­ti­ated re­ports of men­ac­ing clowns lur­ing chil­dren into the woods and other un­con­firmed sight­ings. Some ex­perts say the char­ac­ter of Twisty, a psy­chotic clown in the pop­u­lar FX tele­vi­sion show “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story,” has helped fuel the phe­nom­e­non. The clown fear frenzy re­ally gath­ered steam in Septem­ber and con­tin­ues to spread.

“In many ways, clowns com­bine a per­fect storm of freaky things,” McAn­drew said. “They are mis­chievous and un­pre­dictable, you can­not tell who they re­ally are or what they are re­ally feel­ing, and they have an as­so­ci­a­tion with se­rial killers in real life and in the movies.”

McAn­drew does not think peo­ple should ex­pect the cur­rent clown scare to dis­ap­pear quickly.

“I think that this is a story that has ev­ery­thing,” he said. “It can oc­cur any­where, al­most ev­ery­one seems amused or in­ter­ested by it, and there prob­a­bly have been enough copy­cats in­spired to keep it go­ing when­ever it ap­pears to die down. It has the per­fect in­gre­di­ents of an ur­ban le­gend, and I do not think that we re­ally want it to end.”

Many par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors prob­a­bly dis­agree, and some com­mu­ni­ties have taken steps to quash clown ap­pear­ances.

Schools in New Haven, Conn., have banned clown cos­tumes and “sym­bols of ter­ror” dur­ing the Hal­loween sea­son. And in other cities, hop­ing to soothe frayed nerves, po­lice and city lead­ers are re­quest­ing that peo­ple not wear clown cos­tumes at all.

Oth­ers are hop­ing rea­son alone will suf­fice.

Si­mon Rod­berg, the prin­ci­pal of D.C. In­ter­na­tional School, was suc­cinct in the mes­sage he sent to stu­dents: “Clowns are not a threat to the school. There are no clowns com­ing to the school. There are no clowns com­ing to any school.”

The World Clown As­so­ci­a­tion’s pres­i­dent is­sued a state­ment on YouTube re­cently urg­ing the clown com­mu­nity to counter “scary clowns” with a pos­i­tive re­sponse. Mar­sha Gal­lagher, who has been work­ing as a clown since 1976, said ris­ing para­noia about clowns has led to fewer jobs.

“It’s get­ting to the point where we’re un­com­fort­able go­ing out with your whole clown per­sona on,” Gal­lagher said. “It’s less about los­ing in­come than los­ing the op­por­tu­nity to spread the joy and to see peo­ple’s faces light up when you walk into the room.”

At the JMU cam­pus, when some stu­dents were out chas­ing the re­ported scary clown this week, oth­ers had locked them­selves in their rooms wait­ing for an all-clear from their friends. But when it comes to creepy clowns, there are no all-clears.

On Wed­nes­day, the wor­ries in Har­rison­burg had not evap­o­rated. Se­nior Emily Hy­land said many stu­dents are on edge.

“The fear is still there be­cause of what might be out there now that the fear has been pre­sented,” she said.

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