LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. — Two Florida boys were arrested Thursday after a tip from a fellow student led authorities to uncover a Columbine-like plot to shoot up their middle school.
The boys, ages 13 and 14, are charged with conspiracy to commit a mass shooting, according to Lee County officials. They are being held in a juvenile detention facility for at least 21 days.
NBC 2 in Fort Myers reported that the pair underwent psychiatric evaluations before being taken to detention.
It is unclear if authorities plan to prosecute the boys as juveniles or adults. While Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno identified the teens by name at a news conference last week, court documents in the case appear to be confidential.
The boys’ names are being withheld here because of their ages.
Deputies were called Wednesday to Harns Marsh Middle School in Lehigh Acres after unnamed students told a teacher one of the boys might have a gun in his backpack. Lehigh Acres is located about 15 miles east of Fort Myers in southern Florida.
The teacher acted immediately, said Ken Savage, superintendent of the Lee County school district.
“As soon as students reported the potential threat, the teacher notified administrators, who immediately brought in the school resource officer,” Savage said. “Together, they emptied the classroom and investigated.
“Students were safe at all times.”
When deputies searched the eighth-grader’s bag, they found no weapons.
What they did find was a map of the school.
“The map contained markings indicating the location of each of the school’s interior cameras,” Marceno said. “We take every tip and every threat seriously, so we did not stop there.”
Detectives searched both boys’ homes. The searches turned up a gun and multiple knives.
The older boy’s Instagram page shows images of what appears to be multiple weapons, including a shotgun, handguns, rifles and knives, including what looks like a homemade knife. Several of the same images were shared Thursday by authorities.
Watch Thursday’s news conference below.
At least some of the photos were taken in the same bedroom depicted in police footage from the search of the boy’s home.
On his dresser, the boy had an expired Florida car tag bearing the words “Support Education.” The metal appeared to be pocked with bullet or pellet holes.
A Confederate flag with the slogan “The South Will Rise Again” was on the teen’s wall.
Marceno likened the alleged plot to the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where a total of 14 students and three staff members were slain.
“This could have been the next Parkland massacre, but we stopped them in the planning stages,” Marceno said Thursday.
A former Parkland student, Nikolas Cruz, 22, is being held in the Broward County Jail awaiting trial.
Marceno said the Lehigh Acres teens were learning how to make pipe bombs and researching how to obtain black market firearms.
The investigation also showed that the boys had a vivid interest in the April 20, 1999, massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In one of the U.S.’s most notorious school shootings, Columbine students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before turning their weapons on themselves.
Harris and Klebold had also planted multiple bombs at the school, but the homemade devices did not detonate as planned.
The Harns Marsh Middle students were “extensively studying” the 1999 shooting, as well as the backgrounds of both Harris and Klebold, Marceno said Thursday.
“This could have turned disastrous. We were one second away from a Columbine here,” the sheriff said.
Lee County deputies were very familiar with both boys, Marceno said. Combined, deputies have had to respond to the teens’ homes nearly 80 times.
Detectives determined during interviews with the boys that they met the criteria to be sent for mental evaluations, the sheriff said.
Marceno praised the quick actions of the teacher who reported the tip, as well as the subsequent work by his own department.
“I’m certain that my team of dedicated deputies and detectives acted promptly, investigated thoroughly and prevented a very violent and dangerous act from being carried out,” he said.
Savage commended the students who reported the threat, as well as everyone who worked to ensure that the campus remained safe.
“You are all heroes,” the superintendent said.
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