How Social Media Can Help Schools Deal with Threats

Social media has become a large part of our daily lives. Research shows that we spend nearly 2.5 hours on social networks and social messaging every day1. About 69% of U.S. adults use at least one social media site, and the average American Internet user has more than 7 social media accounts.

Anyone under the age of 25 is a “digital native”, meaning they have grown up with the Internet in their lives. For that group, social media use is much higher than it is for adults. According to Pew Research data, 45% of teens say they use the internet “almost constantly,” and 44% say they go online several times a day. Roughly half (51%) of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 say they use Facebook, followed by YouTube, Instagram, or Snapchat.

Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat (along with other channels) are used in a multitude of ways. Users can share vacation photos or political views, find others with similar hobbies or interests, or follow individuals and brands of interest. They can also use the networks to communicate their personal points of view and plans – and threats – to whoever is listening.

In recent years, schools have been the targets of social media threats. According to the report Violent Threats and Incidents in Schools by the Educators School Safety Network, there were more than 3,380 threats of violence in K-12 schools in the 2017-2018 school year, a 62-percent increase over 2016-2017. Social media was the most common method of delivery.

Sometimes, social media threats turn out to be baseless. For example, five Alliance High School freshmen were charged with making false threats to their school after openly discussing plans to carry out a shooting on social media. The students later told investigators that the conversations were meant as “a joke” and they had no plans to hurt anyone.

Other times, however, it has been shown that social media threats have been the beginning of an actual plan for violence. There have been numerous incidents where it was discovered that the perpetrator had posted disturbing or violent messages on social media that should have been red flags.

How should school officials handle social media threats?

First, school administration should create and communicate social media usage guidelines for when students are on campus and at home, with education about what kinds of language, images and posts constitute a threat.

Next, students should be taught to communicate any school threat they see or hear about to school administration, no matter whether they believe the threat is legitimate or not.

At this point, every school will need its own protocols for determining what action they will take to mitigate the potential risk indicated by the post or posts. As experience and the news has shown us, perspectives regarding what constitutes an appropriate response vary widely between schools, districts and states.

The best way for a school to prepare for risk

Because there is no way to know with absolute certainty whether an attack is coming, every school needs to be prepared for the possibility that one could occur.

The proliferation of social media usage into our lives has added a new dimension into securing schools. Creating, and adhering to, a social media and school security strategy can help keep students, teachers and staff safe.

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