Two students at a Florida middle school were arrested for allegedly plotting to carry out a shooting inspired by the Columbine massacre, in which two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher in Colorado in 1999.
“We were one second away from Columbine here,” the local sheriff said.
The 13- and 14-year-old boys were being held at a juvenile detention center on charges of conspiring to commit a mass shooting.
The boys are both in the eighth grade Harns Marsh middle school in Lee county, two hours away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, where a student killed 17 people in 2018.
The boys were arrested after students alerted a teacher that one might be carrying a gun in his backpack.
The teacher notified administrators, who carried out a search. No firearms were found but the search did reveal a map of the school with marks indicating the locations of interior cameras, Sheriff Carmine Marceno told reporters on Thursday.
An investigation by the sheriff’s department’s youth services criminal investigations division found that the boys were “involved in a plot to carry out a school shooting”.
Marceno said the pair were “extensively studying” the Columbine shooting.
Investigators found “disturbing evidence” at the boys’ homes, including knives and a gun. They also found evidence the boys were attempting to learn how to purchase firearms on the black market and how to construct pipe bombs.
Marceno said he was “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 also said: “This could have been the next Parkland massacre but we stopped them in the planning stage.”
According to Marceno, the two students are well known to authorities, deputies having visited their homes nearly 80 times combined. Both boys met the criteria for evaluations at a mental health facility and were assessed before being detained.
“I commend the students who came forward to report the threat and the quick action of the staff,” said Alex Dworzanski, principal of Harns Marsh middle school.
“The safety of our students and staff is at the core of what we do.”
Mass shootings are generally defined as incidents in which at least four people are shot or killed, not including the person with the gun.
According to data from Gun Violence Archives, mass shootings have been increasing across the US since 2017. The non-profit, which started collecting data in 2014, said 2020 saw the biggest increase in mass shootings with 611, after 417 the year before.
The Gun Violence Archive has counted close to 500 mass shootings in 2021.