Most school threats via social media false

Schools need better threat assessment, expert says
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Monday, April 7, 2014

CLEVELAND—How should law enforcement respond to a threat issued to a school via Facebook, Twitter or other social media platform that says a bomb is set to go off in the high school cafeteria or that an angry student is headed to the campus armed to the hilt?

Should law enforcement rush in, evacuate the school and lock down other facilities in the area?

That may seem reasonable, but those types of threats increasingly are false—or are ploys to divert law enforcement. Often, while police are busy trying to determine if there’s a problem at the school, criminals carry out a crime on the other side of town.

More than one-third of 315 documented violent threats to schools in 43 states since the beginning of the 2013-14 school year were delivered by social media, according to a study by National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm based here. Most of them were false, the study found.

Whether to respond with full force is an important question, according to Kenneth Trump, president of the consulting firm. Updated threat-assessment protocols are the answer, he said, and too few school districts have them.

Communities, obviously, want to protect their children when these threats arise. But not only are most of the threats false, they’re costly, he said.

Trump’s group recently released findings of a study it conducted that found more than one-third of violent threats to schools since the beginning of the 2013-14 school year through this past January were delivered by social media, text messaging and other electronic forms.

“The cost of these threats in taxpayer dollars for police response, lost instruction time, and anxiety among students, teachers and parents is staggering. School administrators and safety officials now face bomb, shooting and other threats delivered and spread so rapidly [through social media and other electronic forms] that they must have threat assessment protocols and crisis communications plans ready to go alongside of their traditional emergency response plans,” Trump said.

In addition, a new trend has emerged, Trump’s study found. “People are making false threats [to schools] as diversions,” he said. Criminals know police will flock to the scene of the threat and leave the scene of their intended crimes unprotected.

“People are using and abusing schools for their ill and criminal intentions. If you want to strike at the heart of America, you strike at their children. Criminals are using schools … knowing what the response will be,” he said.

The study found a vast majority of social media threats turned out to be false reports; only 17 of the 314 incidents studied were serious.

Those serious incidents included a suicide in California, the Arapahoe High School, Colo., shooting death and shootings in Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Houston.
While the majority of school threats are empty, police cannot take chances. In addition, social media threats add to school administrators’ challenges, Trump said.

“Now they have to manage simultaneously the rumors and communication with parents,” he said.

“We’re scratching our heads over [the study results],” Trump said. “Knee-jerk reactions without a threat assessment process” is not helping anyone, he said.

Schools, partnering with local law enforcement, should be revisiting their threat assessment procedures. Automatically evacuating a school because of false threat can put students in danger, he said.