School threats and social media hoaxes are forcing closures, time-consuming investigations
Nine days after the mass shooting at Michigan’s Oxford High School, a disturbing message on social media shook a tiny Virginia town. A 15-year-old boy wrote of “shooting up the school tomorrow,” police say, apparently referring to the high school he attended — spurring worried classmates to report the message to Manassas Park City Schools administrators.
School officials contacted the police, setting in motion a full-scale investigation, and the school system decided on a fairly drastic step — closing all campuses, not just the targeted school, for all of its 3,500 students the next day.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we switched all schools to virtual learning,” said schools spokeswoman Kara Grasser. “The immediate information we received was not specific. ... We are a very small school system with only four schools.”
It was one among hundreds of examples of school systems grappling with how to respond to vague threats afloat on social media in the wake of the tragedy at Oxford High, which left four dead and seven seriously injured. These kinds of disturbing messages are spiking nationwide: At least 60 schools in Michigan closed this month in the wake of the Oxford shooting, as did districts in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And in a “challenge” last week that swept the social network TikTok, students promoted school shootings to take place on Dec. 17 — for many, the last day of class before winter break. Schools from Washington D.C. to California closed for the day or added police.
More than 150 threats surfaced nationwide in just the week after Oxford, said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and a co-founder of the Violence Project. By comparison, Densley, who tracks news reports, recorded 151 school threats for the entire month of September this year — itself a fivefold increase over the number seen in a typical September, he said.
Every threat sets off alarm bells, putting staffers, parents and students on edge — and forcing administrators to make a choice. Should they close schools, an option that is more attractive in a post-pandemic world in which many students can learn from home? Or should they take a risk in an effort to minimize learning disruption? Assessing the danger of each threat is not always obvious.
For Jason Enix, superintendent of the Reading Community City School District just outside Cincinnati, the decision was clear. When a social media post surfaced this month promising a student was going to “shoot up the school,” Enix opted to have students learn virtually the next day. “It was an easy call to make,” he said. “We would make that call every single time.”
But when Daniel McGarry, superintendent of the Upper Darby School District in Pennsylvania, faced a similar situation in early December, before the Oxford attack, he kept students learning in a “lock-in” scenario, under which teachers continue teaching but nobody is allowed to leave their classroom. “Our last resort is to close schools,” McGarry said.
Experts are similarly conflicted — emphasizing the need to err on the side of caution but warning of possible downsides.
“I think we have to take every single threat very seriously right now — it doesn’t matter how it might seem innocuous,” said Laurel Thompson, who is on the board of the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) and was involved in the response to the 2018 shooting at Parkland High School in Florida. “We never know which one is going to be the one. We never want to make a mistake.”
Amy Klinger, founder and director of programs for the Educator’s School Safety Network, commended schools for taking threats seriously. But she said she would like to see fewer campus shutdowns, because a return to virtual learning can cause trauma and anxiety for students who suffered in that environment during the pandemic. And, she warned, school closures could lead to even more threats surfacing on social media.
“A kid could think, ‘I made a threat and it worked, we don’t have school, so I’m going to do that again,’” Klinger said. “And copycats create copycats and you get into this cycle of threat closure, threat closure, threat closure, so it’s very difficult.”
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The threats run the gamut.
In Virginia’s Chesterfield County, students began sharing an Instagram post in early December that promised a “school riot” the next day, slated to take place during third period. Ultimately deemed not credible by authorities, the threat nonetheless led school officials to request greater police presence at their campuses and spurred several principals to call or write letters to families.
In New Haven, Conn., a high school closed early on Dec. 6 when a 911 caller warned that someone was approaching the campus with a gun. Police say the girl who made the call admitted lying, was arrested and is now facing felony charges.
And when ominous rumors spread on TikTok of a possible day of shootings nationwide this past Friday, administrators struggled to understand how real they were. In Maryland’s Howard County, for instance, they wrote a message to families of “a new TikTok challenge encouraging students to make school shooting threats to schools” and asked parents to urge their children not to participate.
“At this point, there are no credible threats,” the message said. “However, even hoax threats create fear and cause disruption to the school community.”
McGarry, the Pennsylvania superintendent, said it has become enormously difficult to tell real promises of violence from false ones. He said his staff has recently had to work after hours, on weekends and through holidays to help track down threats.
“You can get a picture of a picture sent out on social media,” McGarry said. “We are seeing fake accounts, dummy accounts, fake threats.”
For example, McGarry said, an Upper Darby student showed up to the main office in early December with a picture of what they said looked like another student in one of the district’s high schools holding a shotgun. Someone had messaged the student the image, terrifying the student into believing someone was coming to shoot them, McGarry said.
School officials who examined the picture did not recognize him. And the weapon he was holding looked more like a BB gun, McGarry said. Nonetheless the school system called the police, went into a partial lockdown, alerted parents and designated a team of staffers to help law enforcement uncover the truth.
McGarry said the photo turned out to be a picture of “a kid from another community somewhere else,” with no ties to Upper Darby, holding a pellet gun. And police determined the person who sent the message was not an Upper Darby student.
Thompson, of the SSWAA, said some teens make school threats out of a desire to mimic tragedies they have seen on the news. But, she said, other threats stem from genuine pain — and represent yet another lingering legacy of the pandemic, which has left children across the country scarred by personal tragedy, economic uncertainty, the sudden shuttering of desperately needed support systems or all three.
“For many students, their mental health situation — unrecognized, untreated — might turn to violence as a way for them to express themselves,” Thompson said.
Of course, some threats are not hoaxes. And some threats, even if impossible to carry out, have very real roots in student distress.
In Virginia’s Manassas Park, Grasser said that school officials worked in tandem with police throughout the night to track down the student who posted the threat, relying on Instagram accounts and Internet protocol (IP) addresses. Just after midnight, Manassas Park police identified the teen and took him and his parents to police headquarters, authorities said.
Police then searched the family’s home, with the cooperation of the teen’s parents, and found no firearms. Police arrested and charged the 15-year-old last week, placing him in custody at the Prince William County Juvenile Detention Center.
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As a flood of threats continue to inundate schools, some are trying to develop longer-term solutions.
State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, put forward a bill last week that would add an extra billion dollars per year in state funding for school support personnel such as nurses. About $50 million of that money would specifically go to mental health personnel, school social workers and counselors, McClellan said in an interview.
She is aiming to reduce the ratios of students to mental health staffers — advocating to have one school counselor for every 250 students at every Virginia school campus, for example. McClellan said that she plans to introduce the bill when the Senate goes into session on Jan. 12 and that she is hopeful it will receive bipartisan support.
“We’re seeing a spike in school threats on top of a spike in trauma [that] these kids are carrying from last year that has not been addressed,” McClellan said. “There’s been so much stress on these kids. ... We owe it to our kids and our communities to meet their needs.”
In the meantime, though, school officials continue to face fast-developing and swiftly changing crises, forcing them to make quick judgment calls in situations in which there are few if any right answers.
Wendell Hissrich, public safety director for the city of Pittsburgh, said nine schools within the city limits and seven more in suburban areas received at least one threat, typically through social media, in the weeks before and after the Oxford shooting. Officials often opted to cancel classes for the day in the face of those threats, he said.
“That’s a little easier in this day and age,” he said. “They have the mechanism to learn from home. Years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
In the Reading district in Ohio in mid-November, “a trickle, then a flood” of reports came into the district about a social media post warning of violence at school, Enix said.
The post declared: “Everyone going to Reading school tomorrow, please I beg you don’t go to school tomorrow, there is a risk that one of the students will shoot up the school tomorrow just take precaution and DO NOT GO this is important.”
Police immediately launched an investigation and deemed it a credible threat, Enix said. By 9 p.m., the district had decided to close schools the next day. Police arrested a student later that evening.
Enix said the district regularly runs tabletop exercises and drills to prepare for situations like this. He said he thinks his team would have handled it exactly the same way even if the Oxford shooting was not fresh in people’s memories. It wasn’t “a hard decision,” he said, “because we’ve talked about these things before.”
“The truth is,” Enix added, “if we hadn’t closed school, I’m not sure how many students or staff would have been here that day.”