Police and Decatur School District officials have turned their eyes toward social media platforms to watch for the warning signs of credible threats to students.
(TNS) — It's a new front line in making sure kids are safe in the classroom. Police and Decatur School District officials are monitoring social media, in all its expanding forms, and seeking input about signs of trouble — and looking for solutions.
"A lot of people behind a computer; they're pretty brave sometimes," said Fred Bouchard, assistant superintendent for the school district. "They feel like they're an arms length away from law enforcement. Those threats are taken very, very seriously by our district."
Bouchard said the school district's approach to investigating and responding to social media threats is done on a case by case basis. There are some instances that the district is able to handle without a need to involve law enforcement, he said, while more serious situations require more thorough investigations with police assistance to ensure safety.
"Sometimes, there are people [online] who may be critical of a decision that the district made on something. That's not the kind of thing that we're talking about," Bouchard said. "One person's opinion is not necessarily something that causes us concern."
"Anytime that it reaches that level of a threat, we automatically err on the side of caution."
An example of such a situation happened on Jan. 15. Police were notified of a threat made against the safety of MacArthur High School students and faculty posted on Snapchat. It was eventually determined that the threat wasn't credible and school remained in session.
Decatur police Sgt. David Pruitt said a female MacArthur student was arrested. She faces a preliminary charge of disorderly conduct, which is subject to review by the Macon County State's Attorney's Office.
Tara Covington said her daughter, also a MacArthur student, took a screenshot of the social media post and shared it with her. Covington said she didn't send her daughter to school that Tuesday morning, because she didn't want to take any chances with her safety.
"What if it had been something real?" the Decatur mother said. "You see that stuff happen all over the news. Something very easily could have happened. It's like the worst nightmare."
Pruitt said that in many instances, threats made against Decatur schools are usually made by "young people that put their emotions out there."
There are also times when that's not the case. In August, a 29-year-old man was arrested after the Macon County Sheriff's Office said he threatened to kill a man and his two children over a debt owed.
Deputies say Ricardo Q. Holloway texted the man a picture of the playground at Durfee Magnet School, where one of his children attends, and later texted a message that said "keep on playing (and) watch how bad it get." As a result of this, Durfee and MacArthur were placed on a "soft lockdown" while police searched for Holloway. The threatened man's 17-year-old is a student at the high school.
The affidavit said Holloway acknowledged calling and texting threats to the man over the debt, but denied saying that he would kill him or his children at the school. He also admitted to being at Durfee on Aug. 17 and texting the man a picture of children playing on the school's playground.
Holloway has since posted bond and pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of harassment by phone with a threat to kill. He will appear in Macon County Circuit Court for a jury trial on Feb. 19, court records show.
The FBI said that regardless of the circumstances, issuing a threat over social media or other electronic communication methods is a crime that can carry harsh consequences — ranging from having to face local charges to receiving up to five years in a federal prison.
"It's a criminal act," said Donald Craven, a Springfield attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues and media law and advises the Illinois Press Association, of which the Herald & Review is a member. "... To make those sorts of threats against another person or against a governmental institution is a crime."
Bouchard said the school district tries to encourage students to use social media responsibly in a society where they have an "immense wealth of knowledge" in the palms of their hands.
"Of all of the good things that social media can bring, there's also some ugliness," he said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2018 said that in the aftermath of mass shootings — such as the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed — there is typically an increase in hoax threats against schools or other public places. The FBI said these threats often are issued by text messages or posted on social media.
Bouchard and Pruitt said there haven't been any notable increases in social media threats being made against Decatur schools, but it is an issue that the school district and police department deal with.
"If there's anything that would meet the definition of a threat, we'll look into it, contact schools, parents (and) things like that," said Pruitt, who works with Decatur Police Department's Juvenile Division. "All (threats) are looked into."
Decatur public school students are provided tablet computers for online educational resources and other materials. Bouchard said that's improved the educational experiences for students, but the potential for cyberbullying and misuse of the technology needs to be watched closely. The district's information technology department has set up firewalls to prevent students from visiting certain sites, like Facebook, when using their school tablets, Bouchard said. They can also track a student's activity on the devices if necessary, he said.
But when it comes to digging into threats that aren't made using school district equipment, officials and law enforcement rely on the community's help, Bouchard said.
"That's usually the case," he said. "There are a lot of people who keep a good eye on anything that's out there. If it's a threat of some kind, it ends up immediately here somewhere in our community engagement office, with our secretaries or other staff members."
Pruitt said if the department is notified by a school official, a student or concerned parent about a threat made online, the extent of their investigation and ultimate actions also depend on the severity of the threat and other factors.
"It's not something that we decide on the fly," he said. "We have parameters that we follow ... If we've had more than one threat from the same person in a couple of years, we may try to get that person detained or deal with the parents to come to the best resolutions."
'Once something is posted, it's posted forever'
Social media was the most common source of threats in the 2017-2018 academic year nationally, making up 39.2 percent of all threats, according to The Educator's School Safety Network.
Earlier this month, a threat on the Algonquin School District's student’s Instagram feed prompted an investigation, and Illinois schools from Columbia to Rochester have had similar incidents. A Riverton student was charged with a felony for a social media threat last year.
Craven said that when it comes to saying something threatening on social media, many people might not understand the ramifications of their actions.
"I think it's very apparent from looking at Facebook or other such sites that children and adults don't understand that once something is posted, it's posted forever," he said. "People do all kinds of silly (things) that wouldn't happen if they took the time to think about it."
The FBI said that by making a thoughtless remark online, young people can "risk starting out their adult lives in prison and forever being labeled a felon." As a way to educate young adults about the severity of sending threatening messages on social media, the bureau has since initiated a campaign called #ThinkBeforeYouPost.
"Hoax threats disrupt school, waste limited law enforcement resources and put first responders in unnecessary danger," said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich in a statement.
"We also don't want to see a young person start out adulthood with a felony record over an impulsive social media post. It's not a joke; always think before you post," he said.
Pruitt said that in Decatur, the police department gives presentations to students about safe internet use and has organized discussions with parents about the issue, too.
Bouchard said the school district also stresses the concept of "digital citizenship" to its students and encourages them to always use information technology appropriately.
It can be challenging to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of social media technology, he said, and the district has many students who learn how to utilize the technology in creative ways. But Bouchard said the district has a talented IT staff that can help faculty keep students safe online.
Watching out for digital threats will also take some help from families, he said.
"We hope we're also partnering with our parents, and we hope that they are monitoring (students) computer usage," Bouchard said. "That's always something that's important to us — to be able to partner with our families."
©2019 The Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.