When threats to schools come in, this specialized OCSD team springs into action

By Greg Hardesty

The deputy pushed his smartphone across the conference room table.

“Here’s one,” he said.

The photo showed a person wearing a ski mask and reflective sunglasses.

The caption:

Yes mom I’m studying all right

On one lens were the words:

School Shooting Plan.

Deputy Andres Briceno, of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, showed the photo as an example of the many forms of threats he assesses as a member of SMART, for School Mobile Assessment Resource Team.

The team — which soon will add a third deputy and a clinical psychologist, according to the unit’s leader, Sgt. Darren Braham — springs to action whenever the school community reports a threat.

The SMART team thoroughly vets threats, sometimes working into the early morning hours, before declaring schools safe for students, teachers and staff.

The ski mask photo, linked to another picture showing guns, turned out to be a four-year-old post on an Instagram account belonging to a student who was obsessed with global military conflicts.

Someone scrolling through the account saw the pictures and alerted authorities.

After interviewing the teen and his parents, members of SMART, who work out of the OCSD’s Saddleback Station in Lake Forest, concluded the student did not pose a credible threat, and closed the case.

“We have to take every report seriously and then vet it, investigate, assess and figure out what’s going on,” said Braham, whose team is specially trained in scouring social media to assess real threats versus unintended ones.

The line can get blurry.

For example, a perceived threat against Tesoro High School earlier this year spooked the campus community in the days leading up to the graduation ceremony at Orange Coast College.

A couple of weeks before the June 7 ceremony, the school reported to authorities a photo a student had texted to a fellow Tesoro senior that showed a box of ammunition with a message across the photo:

Getting ready for graduation.

From left, Sgt. Darren Braham, Investigator Adam Koliha, Investigator Nick Bogdanovich and Investigator Andres Briceno of the OCSD’s SMART team. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The SMART team spent a couple of days getting to the bottom of things.

It turned out that the photo was taken out of context, said SMART Investigator Adam Koliha.

The sender’s family owns property in the desert, and the student who sent the photo was reminding his buddy about a shooting trip scheduled after graduation.

“The kid’s intention wasn’t to scare anybody,” Koliha said. “His intention when he sent it was like, ‘Hey dude, get ready, our trip is coming up.’”

Only when the sender was sitting down with school and OCSD SMART, Koliha said, did he realize how his text easily could have been misunderstood — which, of course, it was.

“Once we went back and showed this to the teenager, he was like, ‘Oh yeah, that was stupid. What was I thinking?’” Braham said.

Added Koliha, a 20-year veteran of the OCSD: “That the message could be perceived as a threat never crossed his mind.”

SMART investigators notified Tesoro HS officials there was no threat, but when graduation day approached, the image flared up again on social media, frightening parents, students and other members of the Tesoro community.

“The school had kept quiet about (the perceived threat) because it didn’t want to alarm parents unnecessarily,” Braham explained. “Some parents weren’t happy with the response the school was giving them: that the OCSD had investigated this and determined there was no threat.”

Some parents threatened to call the FBI.

Others called the media, who showed up at Orange Coast College to report on the perceived threat.

“We want people to understand that we take every threat seriously regardless of who makes it,” Braham said.

“We’re going to go the distance to investigate and vet out each one, but when we determine there’s no threat, then at some point there has to be some trust in the fact that (the SMART team) are doing their job. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”

SMART Deputy Nick Bogdanovich, a 16-year veteran of the OCSD who, like Briceno, is a former SRO (School Resource Officer), was formed in July 2001 as a response to an uptick in violence at schools and the threat of violence at schools nationwide.

Sgt. Darren Braham and Investigator Adam Koliha of the OCSD SMART team. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The unit responds to all incidents related to violence, threats of violence, possession and/or use of weapons, unstable behaviors, and suicidal actions or tendencies that pose a threat to others at K-12 schools. The OCSD’s jurisdiction includes the largest school districts of Capistrano, Saddleback and portions of many north O.C. school districts. At times, SMART also assists schools outside its jurisdiction when requested.

From 2015 through 2017, SMART fielded 469 calls for service, which included investigating threats as well as investigating reports of weapons on campus and other illegal activity. The team made 173 arrests over those three years and 137 of those students were mandated to participate in the youth diversion program, PRYDE (Pepperdine Resource, Youth Diversion and Education).

Braham slid his cellphone across the table.

“What do you think of this?” he asked.

A picture showed a young adult male with a weapon and the caption:

Where is your God now?

Someone reported the photo to law enforcement, and it ended up in the hands of SMART.

It turned out that the photo was posted on social media by a 22-year-old fan of the TV series “Game of Thrones.”

“Where is your God now?” was a line in a memorable scene.

Briceno, who has worked at the OCSD for a decade, recalled working throughout the night with Koliha after putting in a regular 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. workday. At around 8 p.m. that night, they were called out to assist Placentia PD regarding a picture of a young man holding a gun.

The teenager turned out to be a budding rapper.

The image was from a music video, and he was holding a fake gun as a prop.

“They’re not going to clear something (unless) the threat has been thoroughly vetted,” Braham said of his investigators. “They care about these kids, and they’re not going to let them go back to school if they feel it’s unsafe.”

Bogdanovich showed a picture of a person holding a shotgun with the caption:

School shooter training with shotguns since assault rifles are illegal soon.

Investigator Nick Bogdanovich and Investigator Andres Briceno of the OCSD’s SMART team. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

A SMART investigation revealed that the person sent the photo to friends as a joke.

They, in turn, sent it to their friends.

“That’s why this team exists,” Braham said. “If you see something, say something. We want to hear about all (threats).”

Braham said the addition of a clinical psychologist to SMART will help the unit assess whether a student is exhibiting behavior leading them down the pathway of violence.

“A clinical psychologist will help us identify troubled teens and allow us to direct them to the appropriate resources,” he said.

The sergeant encourages parents to be engaged with their children and monitor their children’s use of smart phones and social media.

“I don’t have to do much to set up a Snapchat account, and I don’t even have to be myself,” Braham said. “I can do it with a certain amount of anonymity and say whatever I want, and what are the consequences? “

When it comes to making threats, the consequences can be very serious.

In my opinion, it always goes back to the parents,” Braham said. “There’s more computing power on a single cell phone today than there was on the Apollo 11 space ship, and parents are giving these devices to their children when they’re 10 or younger.

“Kids can access the whole world from their phones, which means the whole world can access them. And who’s monitoring their use? Parents should be.”