The Duality of Social Media Shows Through in Crisis

Though police and first responders can gain insights into possibly deadly situations as they unfold, the potential for misinformation and hoaxes runs rampant as well.

by Sue Loughlin, The Tribune-Star / February 23, 2018
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(TNS) — Many Wabash Valley schools are already on heightened alert in the aftermath of last week’s school shootings in Parkland, Florida.

But when social media threats, and hoaxes, are added to the mix — that only increases difficulties faced by school and law enforcement authorities as they must investigate those threats, determine the validity and then allay community fears.

Social media is a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to school safety, says Sullivan County Sheriff Clark Cottom.

Social media provide instant notification to warn people about legitimate emergencies, but the downside is “misinformation can be spread just as quickly,” Cottom said Thursday.

This week, the department used social media to solve a school threat case that led to an arrest. But on Wednesday, Cottom and others worked late into the night investigating a possible social media threat referring to “SHS” that turned out to be a hoax based out of Ohio; the hoax spread nationwide and prompted investigations by law enforcement in other communities.

Prior to that hoax determination, it did cause concern in Sullivan County, Cottom said.

Social media and Internet can help law enforcement do their job, “but there is a dark side to it, when people use it to spread rumors and misinformation,” intentionally. That, in turn, may prompt people who see the school-related postings to panic and keep children home from school.

And law enforcement must invest time, possibly working through the night or longer, tracking down those social media postings to determine whether or not they are a real threat — or a hoax.

Notify, don’t share

Cottom has some advice related to possible school-related threats posted on social media: Notify local law enforcement, and don’t share the postings, which may be false — until law enforcement has investigated.

Until the sheriff’s department determined it was hoax, the social media posting caused concerns among some students and parents of Sullivan High School, which has the initials SHS. The threat indicated a gun would be taken to school.

A community member made a screen shot of the threat and sent it to some current Sullivan High School students. “I’m proud of the students. They reported it immediately,” said Chris Stitzle, superintendent of Southwest Sullivan School Corp. Parents reported it to the sheriff’s office, which immediately investigated.

Social media “certainly is making our job more difficult. It certainly makes law enforcement’s job more difficult,” Stitzle said. “I’m not sure how we change it; I don’t think social media is going away.”

On Thursday, the district notified families by phone and email about what had happened.

The school shootings in Florida, as with similar tragedies that have occurred, “always create tension nationwide at schools. It can’t help but do that, unfortunately,” Stitzle said. Social media hoaxes just add to that tension.

“We take safety very seriously, just like every other school does. We want to make sure we uncover everything we need to uncover,” he said. He didn’t get much sleep Wednesday night, but what’s far more important to him is ensuring student and staff safety.

“If I lose sleep, it’s not a big deal,” Stitzle said. “It’s frustrating from the standpoint ... that’s not why we’re having school. It’s our job is to educate students. This certainly takes away from that.”

It’s probably safe to say every school district is looking at safety protocols and how they can be improved in the aftermath of last week’s shootings in Parkland, Fla. Among those is South Vermillion School Corp.

South Vermillion hopes to use social media in a positive way to launch a campaign, “If you see something, say something,” said Dave Chapman, superintendent. “If something out there raises a red flag, we want to know about it so we can be on top of it.”

But he agrees, people should not share social media threats until they have been investigated. “Social media has a way of expanding false information to the point everyone believes it,” he said. As it spreads, if fuels fear and “a minor issue turns into a major catastrophe.”

Misuse of social media is an everyday problem, not just in times of a crisis. For some, social media is a platform to air grievances, and not just in schools, he said.

Ironically, last Thursday, Chapman attended a national superintendent’s conference in Nashville, Tenn., where he heard the former superintendent of the school system that included Sandy Hook Elementary when the mass shooting occurred in December 2012. Twenty-six people were killed, including 20 first-graders.

No plan is foolproof

The retired superintendent made the point that no matter how thorough and effective the school safety plan, it’s not perfect and there are loopholes.

“These deranged individual attacking schools and churches find ways to get around your plan,” whether knowingly or unknowingly, Chapman said. “We have to stay one step ahead of them and be pro-active.”

When he returned to his office this week, Chapman had received many emails about school safety and people asking, “What are we doing?”

In addition to an “if you see something, say something” campaign, the district is looking into funding sources so it can hire additional school resource officers. Currently, it has one school resource officer based primarily at the high school and middle school.

Chapman also believes it’s important the district look at what it can do as far as mental health services “to help kids coping with issues.”

“We’re looking at every avenue to make sure we’re doing everything we can” to ensure the safety of students and staff, Chapman said.

He does not believe arming teachers with guns is the answer.

This week, South Vermillion staff and the school resource officer are keeping a higher profile and making frequent checks around buildings.

Tom Rohr, superintendent of North Central Parke Community School Corp., said his district, also, is rechecking safety protocols with added emphasis “to be vigilant about everything we do.”

“As with anything, we all get lax in our day to day operation. When something like this happens, it causes us to revisit what we are doing ... to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep kids safe,” Rohr said.

He did note that more students and staff are reporting if they hear anything questionable, including something they might have heard a few months ago. The district will investigate those tips, he said.

©2018 The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.