Every day Americans send their children to the safe learning environment of school, but sometimes threats of violence can disrupt their education.
Aaron Schoenberger, founder and CEO of Soteria Intelligence, a social media threat company, says that while the number of social media threats were fairly low from the rise of social media in 2005/2006, there was a spike in 2012.
In 2016, Schoenberger says that they tracked thousands of threats, an all-time high, and they say it is only increasing every year.
Shoenberger said that while Twitter is the most used medium for making threats, he mentioned Facebook, Yik Yak and BurnBook as well.
Recently, a number of threats posted on social media aimed at Phoenix-area high schools led to issues for students, law enforcement, and school staff.
At one point, nearly half the students at some schools didn’t attend their classes in the Phoenix Union High School District, according to a district spokesman.
Some contend media coverage exacerbated the threats by giving attention to perpetrators, which can encourage copycat threats. Others discount that criticism. They say the media’s responsibility is to keep the community informed.
Social media threats
Threats made through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram aren’t much different those made in earlier times.
“It is something that’s been going on for quite sometime,” said Sgt. Vince Lewis, spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department. “All the way back to the old-school pulling the fire alarm, where somebody makes an anonymous action that…draws along to either create fear or disrupt the school day.”
As Lewis points out, a lot of the recent focus has been on the style of the threats, which is far stranger than fire alarms and involves violent imagery of clowns, which is part of a national trend.
A screenshot of a threat spread around by local media showed a Facebook post saying that a certain Phoenix area high school is “getting shot up.”
The post included gun and knife emoticons and a picture of a clown. Not all of the posts contained clowns, but most contained violent imagery, often of firearms.
The threats caused a high-rate of student absences and mass dismissals which severely impacted Phoenix Union High School District, said Craig Pletenik, communications director for the district where most of the threats took place.
Media coverage exacerbated the situation while the district dealt with the threats, Pletenik said.
“If it didn’t reach the kids, then it certainly reached the parents and the community,” Pletenik said.
Pletenik said he believes the media should take more responsibility in reporting threats, so their coverage does not inspire more threats.
“The general market media needs to be really careful about reporting threats,” Pletenik said. “Media exposure in our mind can legitimize a threat, it certainly raises anxiety levels, it encourages copycat behavior, and it might even pressure the person who is making the threat to follow through with the act.”
Ryan Cody, a reporter at 12 News, has covered several stories concerning the recent threats. Cody said that while it is important to be careful when reporting issues like this, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report them at all.
“I would say that it’s our job as reporters to say what’s going on in our community,” Cody said.
He also says that the amount of media coverage given to the threats may play a role in the line between reporting the news and encouraging further offenses.
“Maybe there’s (a) line, maybe you don’t do five, six, seven, stories, maybe you don’t do it every week,” Cody said. “But if this is something that’s happening and schools are seeing half of their student body not in class, this is a story that the community needs to know about.”
Working with the media
Zachery Fountain, director of communications for Dysart Unified School District, said the West Valley district has a positive relationship with the media, and that working them can help get important messages out.
“It’s important for school districts to understand that the media landscape is changing and a lot of it is driven by social media,” Fountain said. “So we have to be proactive in terms of being the people who can provide the facts to what’s going on in the community.”
Fountain, however, did see one problem with the media’s coverage of the threats.
“There’s been some opportunities in the last month (statewide), where they could have talked about the threats without necessarily posting social media posts,” Fountain said.
Fountain said that he encouraged the media he worked with to refrain from posting the information about the accounts posting the threats.
“Just as you would cover up an address or anything like that, do that for the social media handle,” Fountain said. “It spreads really fast if you’re sharing, the actual handle or contact information.”
Though the recent social media threats disrupted campuses and generated fear, they have spread awareness about the consequences of social media posts.
“What this particular event did, is that it kind of allowed us to also make it an educational moment,” Pletenik said. “It’s really an opportunity to talk about the dangers of social media, appropriate uses, and making sure that parents, if they can, monitor students’ social media, and let them know of the life-changing consequences if they do something stupid on social media.”
The threats, and the resulting media coverage should be a lesson for young people and the community, Sgt. Lewis said.
“If it sparks a conversation, and everyone understands that this is something negative, this is something that disrupts not only the students learning experience but it is a crime that someone will have to eventually face a judge for…then I think we benefit from an open discussion of it,” Sgt. Lewis said.