School threats and social media hoaxes are forcing closures, time-consuming investigations across US
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.
Locally, threats have led to multiple evacuations, arrests and evacuations across Sonoma County this year, including several involving Petaluma schools within weeks of each other.
On Sept. 29, officials discovered a threat targeting Casa Grande High School and determined it was not credible. On Oct. 22, a 13-year-old student was arrested on suspicion of making an anonymous bomb threat to Petaluma Junior High School, where 500 students were evacuated.
The next month, authorities investigated a threat targeting Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma. The threat was made using the anonymous app STOPit, which is designed to report bullying, safety issues and misconduct. Information indicated Nov. 19 was the date of the attack before it was determined to be not credible, police said.
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 earlier 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 Mc-Garry, 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 “lockin” 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.