Breathless and whispering through the phone, a 13-year-old student called for help from her Ohio high school.
"Help," she said in between whimpers. "He's got a gun. He's got the gun in my mouth."
Anxiety was already running high as it had been only a week after the deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla. Police dispatchers then got three other calls from Withrow University High School in Cincinnati.
But it was all just a hoax.
It's a stunt that other teens and kids across the nation have continued to pull after countless tragedies, creating fear in communities and costly investigations by police and federal agents who have no choice but to take the threats with deadly seriousness.
The rise in threats following a high-profile mass killing is nothing new. But the incidents are incredibly hard to quantify since they are not tracked nationally by any government agency.
A review by USA TODAY of published accounts, however, paints a clear picture of a growing problem that is no joke.
More than 130 threats were reported and analyzed by the USA TODAY Network within the nine-day span following the Valentine's Day high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead. Also, non-profits such as the Educator's School Safety Network have compiled a list of the threats using news media reports. The group found a jarring 638 threats targeted schools within the two weeks after the Parkland shootings, a number they say is probably on the low side.
Following the deadly rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, panic swept schools from Maine to California, leading to lockdowns, school closures and deployment of bomb-sniffing dogs.
The dramatic rise in threats — from 10 to about 70 a day — has left school administrators and authorities walking a fine line in dealing with a threat's credibility. It's also worried parents who fear sending their children to school and shined a spotlight on the legal debate over what penalties kids should face.
At the root of the problem, experts say, are students who are too young to realize the severity of their comments.
"There are usually two common traits in these individuals," said Mary Ellen O'Toole, a former FBI profiler. "They're young, and their judgment is poor. I mean, a brain isn't really fully formed until your early 20s. Then, it's also people who want to be disruptive and affect how the school is operating."
Texas, with 55 reports, was the state with the most threats since the shooting. Next in line are Ohio, California, Florida and Pennsylvania, according to data from the Educator's School Safety Network, which not only tracks such incidents but also trains schools on how to handle them.
Because of the threats, at least 33 schools closed and more than 15 others locked down, according to a review of the incidents reported across the USA TODAY Network, which encompasses more than 100 news organizations nationwide.
Some threats were real and law enforcement was able to thwart the plot before it came to fruition, but the larger number of the scares weren't credible, meaning the person suspected of making the comments wasn't planning to harm others and didn't have access to weapons.
"It's not funny, and I think this should end," said Bailey Campbell, a student at Central York High School in Pennsylvania. "I want to go back to school, and I want to finish my senior year."
Her high school, along with others in the region, was closed for three days because of a threat sent by a middle school student. Authorities say the student made the threats simply because she didn't want to go to school.
Seeing closures like that in Pennsylvania gives a student a sense of power, O'Toole said, which for a kid is huge.
Before taking intense action, it's important to track the threat and see whether the person behind it even has the means to act, she added. If a threat doesn't result in some effect on a school, a student feels like they failed, thus discouraging the behavior.
Most reported threats aren't followed by shootings or attacks.
Authorities have been going back and forth about how to deal with these threats. On one hand, an arrest could leave a scar on a student's future. But the threats might cease if a hard approach is taken.
Even with jail as a penalty, threats have been prevalent for decades and show no signs of stopping. After the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, hundreds of threats were sent to schools across the country, leading to more than 350 arrests.
Broward County has been under the microscope since the shooting, and the news media and lawmakers have scrutinized a nationwide program in schools that aims to keep students from serving jail time for minor offenses. The school gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was not part of the program, but some have criticized it, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who said it delays and discourages law enforcement from being alerted to dangerous students.
Amanda Klinger, director of operations for the Educator's School Safety Network, said the threats, along with violence and issues in schools, could be dampened with a few measures. Chief among them would be schools communicating with students about the severity of threats and parents reinforcing the message at home.
"Everyone knows you don't say 'bomb' in an airport. We have to get to that point with kids on this issue," she said. "We need to make it clear that this isn't OK, and it is incredibly serious."
Pointing out the consequences of a joke, whether it is jail time or expulsion, could also help. But school privacy laws keep much out of the public eye.
On average, threats usually continue for about 10-14 days after a major incident, though with social media and the news cycle that could be longer.
Threats after the shooting in Florida have already continued past two weeks and caused panic and confusion in nearly every state. Social media have only worsened the headache as threats now travel quicker and easily spread across state and county lines.
Sometimes even vague posts on social media can lead to panic. A post in January that included photos of guns with a caption reading, "Don’t go to school tomorrow @MHS students" spread across schools with the same initials in Florida, New Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The post led to school closures before it was found to be a hoax.
After the shooting in Florida, the same Snapchat threat was reported to authorities in several states.
"Social media is really wreaking havoc at this point," said John Scola, the Hanover public school's superintendent in southern Pennsylvania. "There's so many rumors and things flying around from one district to another."
Throughout Pennsylvania, at least 32 threats were reported. They have resulted in closures, lockdowns, bomb-sniffing dogs and extra officers on campus.
Such changes can have a psychological effect on students and school administrators, said Kenneth Trump, who heads the National School Safety and Security Services, a school-safety consulting firm. Anxiety is already high after witnessing a tragedy such as Parkland because they think it could happen to them, he said.
"It doesn't matter where something is happening," Trump said — teachers and students still "feel like it's in their backyard."
Schools aren't the only ones feeling the effects of these threats. The increase after the Florida shooting has law enforcement agencies across the U.S. strapped, going to school after school to decipher whether there is any real threat to children seeking an education.
"If this is the new normal, I’m going to need about two more investigators just to do this," said John Hall, a chief deputy for the Lee County Sheriff's Department in Mississippi. "The world doesn't stop turning. I guarantee you, I’m preaching to the choir of other law enforcement agencies because they're thinking the same thing.”
Many schools are guilty of overreacting to threats because of the fear and worry from parents that accompany them.
Schools have to juggle student safety and the risk of falling to pranks. Many experts say the shooting in Florida is an opportunity for schools to review how they assess threats and their plan for any emergency situation. It's a chance to make sure the infrastructure is in place to properly assess an incident and communicate news to the public before rumors spread like wildfire.
"It's easy for (schools) to have a knee-jerk reaction like evacuations," Trump said. "They need to assess then react, not the other way around."
Contributing: Cameron Knight, The Cincinnati Enquirer; Ted Czech, The York Daily Record; Sarah Fowler, the Clarion Ledger; Kaitlin Greenockle and Lillian Reed, The Evening Record.