Threats made via social media a serious problem

Students, parents and staff in a few of our schools have become very concerned recently because of threatening statements posted on social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that have sometimes spread through the school community like wildfire. Law enforcement and school administrators have spent many hours investigating threats and rumors of threats in the past few months.

This is becoming a very serious problem for schools across the country. A quick Internet search on social media threats in schools turns up dozens of examples within the last few months. In Carlisle, Pa., police beefed up security at the high school after rumors of a shooting. The local paper reported four or five police cars and extra officers placed on duty at the school as a result of rumors on Facebook and Twitter. Across the country in Beaverton, Ore., police determined a rumor of a bomb threat was without merit, but the rumor continued to circulate for several weeks with students insisting the threat was real and that it would impact classes. In Kanawha County, W.V., three separate threats demanding police involvement were posted in a single month.

These threats disrupt the learning environment. They create an undercurrent of tension within a school, causing anxiety in students and staff and making it more difficult for students to concentrate on their schoolwork. In some cases, school attendance is down because students don’t want to take a chance coming to school if they, or their parents, fear a rumor may be real.

The amount of time police spend on threats that are simply rumors or hoaxes takes valuable resources away from other responsibilities in the community. The more time police spend tracking down prank threats, the less time they have to investigate actual crimes and patrol neighborhoods to ensure safety.

Students who issue threats face serious consequences at school, including discipline, suspension and possible expulsion. Depending on the circumstances, they may also be charged with a crime.

Our school district’s web filters do not allow students to access Facebook or Twitter during the school day so the inappropriate and threatening messages are posted and spread away from our school sites. This means parents and guardians must set clear guidelines and expectations for their children’s interactions with social media.

As soon as your children start using the Internet, begin talking with them about ways to be safe online and let them know that you will be monitoring them. When you see a story in the news or a television program about social media, use it as a springboard for a conversation about their experiences online. Even with cell phones – monitor the texting particularly with elementary age students.

Remind them that once they post, they can’t take it back. Their message may be shared almost instantly with dozens of other students. Remind them not to post messages that might later be embarrassing. Encourage them to consider messages carefully before posting them. Ask them, “How would you feel if you got that message?” Suggest they reread their messages before sending and consider them from various points of view. Will what they have written be clear to everyone? A message that seems OK by the writer can be taken very differently by someone else who receives it.

Anoka-Hennepin middle schools have all been provided information on social media safety for students and parents through a program we developed called Digital Citizenship. Schools give students monthly tips on online safety and they have offered occasional parent information nights. Take advantage of the resources your school offers and take a look at our Digital Citizenship and Online Safety page on the district website, www.anoka.k12.mn.us/digitalcitizen. You will find links to useful resources.

We need your help. We cannot do it alone. By working together as partners – parents, staff, and principals – we can keep our kids and our schools safe.

Dennis Carlson is the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

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