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School safety demands balance between protection, overreaction — but it's not easy
Officials react to threats, real or not, with evolving set of policies
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People look at phones for an illustration on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Rumors of threats made on social media caused a lockdown earlier this month at East Hall middle and high schools. - photo by Austin Steele

A lockdown earlier this month at East Hall middle and high schools prompted by rumors of threats made on social media was just the most recent example of the unintended consequences possible with such communication among students.

Law enforcement investigated the alleged threat, of course, but found no credible evidence to substantiate claims made online. 

Last February, Hall County school administrators had to silence rumors of a student with a weapon on the Flowery Branch High School campus.

The alleged threat was first spotted on social media, then spread among students. Officials quickly determined that the rumors pertained to a city and school in Texas of the same name.

Finding the balance, however, between alertness and overreaction can feel like trying to cut an orange with a spoon.

“The world is changing so rapidly in this area, and a lot of times I think we’re playing catch up,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.

The pace of change is an affliction that places significant pressure on school officials to anticipate what’s coming next.

After a deadly school shooting in Florida in February, administrators made public overtures to improve security on campuses and detail security protocols already in place to monitor school buildings and facilities.

This included, for example, information about security threat levels, how students and parents are alerted to potential dangers and lockdown practices.

But the answers to addressing social media use when threats are unconfirmed remain a moving target.

Schofield said it’s a constant educational process, and that means having students understand that “what you post matters.”

Law enforcement certainly doesn’t want to deter students from reporting potential threats or criminal activity, but there is a balance they must identify, as well.

“While the (Hall County) Sheriff’s Office takes reports of threats on social media seriously, it’s important for citizens to understand that rumors spread quickly on the platforms, whether accurate or not,” Derreck Booth, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, told The Times in a statement. “Of course, if students see a threat or other potential criminal activity on a social media platform, they’re urged to report it to their (school resource officer) and school officials.”

In the most recent incident, Schofield said, rumors morphed over the course of a few days into something unfounded. It was like a game of “telephone” where the story changes each time it’s told to someone new.

Alerting faculty, staff, students and parents in such an instance can take a delicate touch. But there are some guidelines to work from. For example, wording and notifications should have some consistency on when they are delivered and the language used to deliver them.

And communication between school officials and law enforcement should be frequent.

“Given the change in times, and the use of social media and technology, we’ve kind of adapted things to include (social media education),” said Sgt. Kevin Holbrook, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department. “The new generation has kind of grown up behind a screen name.”

And that has the potential to blur their understanding of the very real consequences associated with posting messages online, Holbrook said.

Discussion of proper social media use in the department’s youth programs and outreach to schools is a growing part of these programs that also include anti-drug and anti-violence education.

The Sheriff’s Office also takes a proactive role in educating students about online behavior through a 10-week Internet safety and cyberbullying program for fifth-graders in the county’s elementary schools.

According to Booth, school resource officers also serve in a supporting role when it comes to social media education, and at times interact with concerned parents to inform them of software programs and other measures to safely monitor their children’s online use.

Schofield acknowledges that “we’re trying to figure this out as we go,” but he’s also quick to add that safety and security of students is a first priority.

“When anything smells like a potential threat,” he said, “senior administration stops ... everything comes to a grinding halt.”

Until the threat is neutralized or debunked.

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