10 Years of Detention? TX Middle Schooler Faces Felony Charge for Online Threat

A 13-year-old girl in Dallas, TX is facing a third-degree felony charge for posting a shooting threat on Instagram.

Officials at the T.W. Browne School in southwest Dallas were told last Monday night that someone had posted a photo to Instagram of man pointing a gun straight at a camera, with the following grim caption:

Everybody at t.w. Browne gone die omm plus u stupid ass eight graders wanna play with me IMA kill everybody even 6graders and 7graders…this is no joke i put that oml I got a rape charge on me and I’m ready to go back to the pen ..

In response to the threat, Dallas police increased security around T.W. Browne and began conducting an investigation. The results of their inquiry help to illustrate the challenges parents face, particularly when children are given access to powerful multimedia devices before they are mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions:

First, actually identifying the original poster was difficult, given the fact that the Instagram post had been reshared numerous times. Ultimately, however, investigators were able to trace it back to the device that was used to make the post.

Second, the image used in the post was a random photo that the girl found online. Putting aside the obvious intellectual property issues, this case illustrates the ease with which disturbing imagery can be viewed and re-purposed by anyone with access to a computer or smartphone.

Third, it appears that the young woman may have used a friend’s device to post the image to Instagram, and police are considering filing accessory charges against the friend. During a lecture that I did for school resource officers in Arkansas, one told me that when some kids are given a new, upgraded smartphone, they will hold on to the old one and share it with classmates who don’t have one or who have lost their phone for some disciplinary reason.

The good news is that the police investigation quickly determined that there was no actual threat against the school. The bad news is that the motivation for the thoughtless, upsetting post was apparently nothing more than a desire for more Instagram followers — a form of self-gratification actively fueled by social media sites and peer pressure. To be fair, no responsible social media site encourages its users to post threats, but the implicit (and sometimes explicit) link between likes/friends/followers and self-esteem obviously can push people to extreme lengths (see, e.g., Miley Cyrus).

As is often the case, this is more of a behavioral issue than a technological problem. Under the relevant Texas statute, making a terroristic threat can be a felony regardless of the medium that is used to convey the threat. Smartphones and social media simply facilitate the bad behavior and amplify its effects. The overarching issue is that no 13-year-old should think that it is ok to threaten to shoot classmates, particularly given recent events.

That being said, we also can’t ignore the technological aspect. This incident is a perfect illustration of how technology has dramatically expanded the capabilities of young people, for both good and ill. If we are going to continue to put these increasingly powerful devices in the hands of children, then we must accelerate our efforts to educate them about not only the rewards but also the risks of using these devices. If we fail to do so, then we are doing a grave disservice to our children.

The young woman who pressed “Share →” in the Instagram app may have up to 10 years in prison to think about these issues, and could be asked to pay a $10,000 fine.

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