Lt. Earl Roach doesn’t use Facebook himself, but he spends plenty of time dealing with it at work.
Roach is the school resource officer supervisor for the Hall County Sheriff’s Department. He’s been working with the Hall County School District since 1999, and he says nothing has changed his job more than the advent of social media.
“You want the kids to use the Internet to their advantage,” Roach said, “but with that comes complications.”
Social media can be a useful tool for school systems, but it’s also a tool used for bullying and threats.
“Behind that computer, you can be anyone you want to,” said Roach.
When threats can be made from a distance, he said, people feel more comfortable making them.
“It’s easy to make threats to the schools. It’s easy to do a bomb threat,” he said.
But social media, especially sites like Facebook that are not used anonymously, also make it easier for police to track down the person who made the threat.
Last month, a student at Lanier Charter Career Academy was arrested after threatening the school from his Facebook account, on which he used his real name.
The student, 18-year-old Devon Carlos Major, said on Facebook that he would “make Columbine look childish,” in reference to the 1999 Colorado school shooting. Major was charged with making terroristic threats.
“(Social media) is a tool that we do use on a daily basis. Oftentimes it is used in criminal cases,” said Gainesville Police Department spokesman Kevin Holbrook. “Individuals should be aware of what they do put on social media. Once something is on the World Wide Web, it’s there forever for everyone to see.”
Holbrook said the GPD would not allow its school resource officers to comment. Gainesville school district officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Even on sites that make users feel as though they’re posting anonymously, authorities can often trace the source of threats. That was the case with recent threats made over the social media site Yik Yak at the University of Georgia.
Yik Yak is a site where users see comments made by the users nearest to them geographically, and it does not use names, handles or personal profiles.
After a threat made over Yik Yak caused a building evacuation at UGA in September, a student, 19-year-old Ariel Omar Arias, was arrested in connection with the threat.
Kate Maine, spokeswoman for the University of North Georgia, said that university takes threats made over Yik Yak and other mediums seriously, but investigations don’t always lead to evacuations or arrests.
“We have to weigh what’s being said and determine if the best approach is to respond or not,” Maine said. “On Yik Yak, because it’s anonymous, that makes it much more challenging to respond.”
Recently, the university was hit by rumors of threats.
“There were rumors of something that someone thought they had heard or read,” Maine said. “No threats were made.”
Maine said the rumors began after a publication linked to al-Qaida threatened terrorist activity at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville. She said law enforcement determined the threats were not credible.
She said some people confused Georgia Military College with UNG’s Dahlonega campus, designated the Military College of Georgia.
“Law enforcement did not feel the threat was credible to any institution,” Maine said. “We did not want to give it credibility by referencing it.”
While social media can be used for threats and bullying, Maine said its influence at UNG has been a largely beneficial one.
“It is a tool that is growing in its importance for the university as it connects us with several different types of stakeholders,” she said. “Lots of different groups on campus maintain channels in social media outlets.”
Aaron Turpin, technology director for Hall schools, said social media has also been useful for the school district to communicate with the public, but the sites are blocked for students using school Internet connections.
Roach said the most frequent problem with the sites is not threats to the schools but bullying between students.
“They (school resource officers) deal with that probably daily,” he said. “We can investigate it to the best of our knowledge. If we find out who is doing it, there is a bullying law.”
While the mediums through which students communicate are evolving, Roach said there’s one thing that’s remained pretty much the same since he started the job in 1999.
“Kids are going to be kids,” he said. “Kids haven’t changed too much, but the advantage they have (with technology) also affords them the opportunity to make mistakes.”