The great clown pandemic of 2016 has reached Central Texas.
This week, threats by clowns — or stories of threats by people wearing clown outfits — circulated in a handful of school districts, apartment complexes and university campuses, forcing authorities to sort through real and imagined dangers.
On Wednesday, clown-related news dominated the region:
• Officials at a San Marcos apartment complex said they were increasing security patrols after someone reported seeing a chainsaw-carrying individual dressed as a clown Tuesday evening.
• In Austin, a 17-year-old high school student was arrested after police say he made “terroristic” clown threats on social media.
• Lake Travis school district authorities informed parents that Hudson Bend Middle School had been mentioned online as part of a wider “suspected internet and social media hoax” that “has been circulating nationally regarding comments about schools by clowns.”
“We have investigated and determined there is not a credible concern for the safety of students or staff,” said the note from district spokesman Marco Alvarado. But, he added: “If you or your child observe any suspicious behavior related to these ‘clown comments’” then “please contact your child’s campus immediately, or call 911.”
• Round Rock school district officials told parents that the Williamson County sheriff’s department “determined the threat to schools from an anonymous clown is a hoax.” The note continued: “Williamson County identified the source of the specific threat in our area and will take appropriate action.”
Wednesday’s developments continued a busy week of clown news.
On Tuesday, police at Texas State University said they were investigating an allegation that a man in a clown costume chased and a grabbed a woman who was walking out of a dormitory on Monday evening.
Also on Tuesday, Austin school district police Chief Eric Mendez wrote parents that his officers were “investigating multiple social media threats made by people dressed as clowns against several of our middle and high schools.”
“At this time, none of the threats has been deemed viable,” he wrote.
And on Monday, a Twitter user called @wisetheclown13 said he was “coming for easy targets” at Bastrop, Smithville and Cedar Creek high schools, and had a gun. Bastrop school district officials, however, said the threat was not credible but the district was operating under heightened security measures.
The clown reports echo threats and pranks in other parts of the country. The New York Times reported last week that at least 12 people in clown-related cases had been arrested in multiple states on charges of making false reports or threats, or chasing people.
Reports of creepy clowns appear to have first surfaced in South Carolina, with rumors that clowns had offered children money to join them in the woods.
Leaving aside whether there is a factual foundation to the clown claims, “rumor and mass hysteria tend to spread in times of widespread tension, e.g., around natural disasters, economic crises, war, and so on,” University of Texas sociologist and criminologist Eric Warr said. “As it happens, we’re living in a time of high tension in this country because of terrorism, social inequality, frayed police/community relations, and other stressors. So it wouldn’t be surprising to find rumors and mass hysteria taking place.”
Fernie Renteria, manager of the South Congress Avenue costume store Lucy in Disguise, said while people have chatted about the clown kerfuffle, “no customer has said they want a clown costume to scare little kids.”
“Frankly, it’s just been news people calling us,” he said.
The clown anxiety, compounded by social media, appears to have put school districts in a similar pickle as they were in during the 2014 Ebola crisis, as they sought both to calm parents’ nerves and to take the threat seriously.
Clown threats have shown up in school districts across the state, from Wichita Falls to San Benito, in the Rio Grande Valley, and in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
Last week9/29 the Corpus Christi school district said a seventh-grader was escorted from school grounds after the student “encouraged others to dress as clowns and to commit acts of violence … causing concern and confusion among students, parents, and the community,” according to a district statement.
The student will spend the rest of the year at the district’s Student Support Center and does not appear to be facing criminal charges.
The New Braunfels-based Comal school district has warned of criminal charges against anyone making scary clown threats.
And four Dallas high schools said they were on alert after clown-related threats surfaced on social media.
The response of schools “seems sensible,” said Andrew Dillon, dean of the school of information at UT and also a psychology professor.
“There’s a feverish spread of this threat,” he said. “It’s easy to post this kind of threat as a thrill or a dare and think it’s humorous. But schools have to react. It’s not long before something will happen.”
In the Texas State case, which involved a report to police a day after the incident allegedly took place, police say the student was able to break away and run from the clown. She did not need to be taken to the hospital for any injuries.
The clown was wearing a black-and-white striped jumpsuit and a green wig, according to police. His face allegedly was painted white and black around his eyes.
On Monday, Kristi Lee, spokeswoman for the Bastrop school district, said there were no specific threats against any of its schools. Tuesday morning, however, the district said on its Facebook page it “is aware and taking proactive measures to address the recent clown threat posts.”
On Twitter, @wisetheclown13 said the person would be dressed as a student and would not be acting alone. The account also listed dates the person would purportedly be at each of the district high schools: Tuesday at Cedar Creek, Wednesday at Bastrop and Thursday at Smithville. “We only want 5 victims,” the account said.