“That’s Not Funny!” Schools View Threats with Increasing Alarm

Rockland High School (1934 postcard)

Rockland High School
(1934 postcard)

In August, International Data Corporation (IDC) predicted that 1.44 billion smartphones would be shipped in 2015, a 10.4% increase over the preceding year.

It is a safe bet that a hefty percentage of those smartphones will be tucked under a Christmas tree a week from now. Thousands upon thousands of teens (and even younger children) will either receive new smartphones to use or will be handed a used-but-still-powerful device from some luckier older teen or adult.

Given the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it is understandable that many if not most parents will overlook or even intentionally forego a serious talk about the risks of misusing digital technology in general and mobile communication devices in particular. I have no interest in serving as a cyberGrinch, but since Santa doesn’t hang around long enough to provide thoughtful warnings, parents need to step in for him and make sure that their children truly understand the meaning of Christmas the responsibilities inherent in carrying around a global publishing platform in their pocket.

This post could have been sparked by any of the cybertraps that I discuss regularly on this blog but the specific trigger was an article published yesterday morning in The Washington Post entitled “‘This is a different age’: Why schools are taking terror threats more seriously.”

As the article points out, American fear of terrorism is at its highest point in a decade, thanks in large part to recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino (and dozens before them). There is particular concern for schools and universities, which despite recent safety improvements, have proven to be highly vulnerable to an individual armed with one or more guns.

Despite the growing concern about possible attacks on schools, there are few if any good sources of statistics about how frequently attacks are made, the percentage of threats that prove to be hoaxes, and the number of times people or property are actually harmed. (We also, of course, have a staggering lack of information about the number of guns sold in the United States, the number of households with guns, and so on. Our lack of decent statistical information about objects that kill thousands of Americans every year is a national embarrassment.)

The anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of threats communicated to school has risen dramatically over the last decade. That corresponds with two trends: a enormous increase in the percentage of teens and middle school students carrying cell phones (more and more of which are smartphones) and fear of terrorism.

Ironically, the former development has been something of a boon to law enforcement, since threats made on modern digital devices are often more easily traced than those made from pay phones a couple of decades ago. But it is still startling just how frequently minors are using digital devices to threaten violence towards schools of their classmates. A handful of examples from the last couple of months illustrate the point:

  • A middle-schooler trying to attract more Instagram followers posted an image of a man holding a gun pointed at the camera, along with a threat to shoot classmates. While schools were not shut down, local law enforcement increased patrols around two schools. As I noted in an earlier post, the young woman is facing up to ten years in jail.
  • An 8th-grader in Tennessee was charged with making bomb threats on Instagram under the username “ISISAttacks.” The threats led to a search of four different schools and the child’s home.
  • A bullied teen in Maine caused the shut-down of eight schools in two communities for three days by sending an email threatening to shoot his tormentors;
  • An 18-year-old freshman at Fresno State University used Yik Yak to post a plan to shoot classmates with an M4 Carbine, including a promise to “take a head shot at a hot blonde.’ He was quickly identified and arrested for making a terrorist threat.

Until recently, many schools were reluctant to broadcast obvious hoaxes or take preventative action (such as closing a school) out of concern that they would inspire copycats. (“If one threat gets us a day off, how about a week?!!”) But now, as The Washington Post points out, the administrative calculus has shifted. Schools are more likely to err on the side of student safety despite the cost and inconvenience of shutting down a school or even an entire district.

When Los Angeles School District received an email on December 15 containing threats of bombs in multiple backpacks, the superintendent ordered every school in the district closed and searched. As a result, roughly 655,000 students lost a day in school, hundreds of thousands of parents were inconvenienced, and the district could lose up to $29 million in federal funds (state penalties might push the final total over $50 million). That’s a relatively minor amount for a school district with a total budget of $7.8 billion, but it’s definitely real money.

Parents have an obligation to inform their children of the potentially life-altering consequences of doing stupid, immature things with their shiny new digital devices. These include:

  • School sanctions: Loss of activities, suspension or even expulsion;
  • Criminal prosecution: This is rising risk as more and more states rush to adopt statutes that criminilize the making of threats;
  • Financial restitution: More and more school districts and local law enforcement agencies are looking to hoaxers and their parents to repay the cost of responding to electronic threats.

A Few Talking Points

These talking points can and should be adjusted to the age and maturity of your new device users. If they are not old enough to understand each of these concepts, then it’s fair to ask whether they should have unmonitored access to a digital device (particularly a smartphone).

  1. Follow the Digital Golden Rule: “Post unto others as you would have them post unto you.” Be kind; you are receiving this digital device in order to improve your ability to function in the world and not to hurt others.
  2. People Are More Nervous Today: Bad things have happened in schools and many adults are deeply worried that more bad things will happen. There is no wiggle room for jokes about threats of violence (and they’re not funny anyway).
  3. It Is Very Hard to Be Anonymous Online: Many children who make threats think that they can hide behind a fake username. You need to understand that they are almost never successful. Law enforcement has powerful tools for identitying people who make threats and commit other criminal acts online.
  4. Don’t Make Your Life Unnecessarily Difficult: It can be hard to recover from the consequences of a bad decision. If you are expelled from school or college, or spend time in prison because you threaten a school, it will be much more challenging to achieve your positive goals in life.
  5. Public and Permanent: As a digital citizen, your life to a large degree will be determined by the “brand” you create for yourself online. The Internet is designed to facilitate the duplication and distribution of information, so data about you will be available for a very long time (if not forever). Think carefully about what you write and post.

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