Social media stirs local school shooting fears

Rain Smith • Feb 23, 2018 at 2:05 PM

Rumors and Facebook stoked fears about an unsubstantiated school threat in Gate City, according to police, while two students face criminal charges in a similar incident in Sullivan County.

Due to the public’s concerns about a potential shooting at Gate City Middle School and High School, additional police personnel accompanied the school resource officer on Friday. According to Scott County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jim Benton, everything went smoothly, as expected.

Fears apparently began on Thursday. Benton said a female student told another student about an alleged Snapchat post, in which someone claimed to be planning a shooting at the school.

From there, the alleged threat was circulated through the student body. A school resource officer caught wind of the chatter and interviewed students, but no such threat was ever located on the Internet.

However, a student texted her mother about the shooting that was reportedly to occur, according to police, and that woman then made a Facebook post about the alleged threat. From there, the rumor was circulated on social media and spread like wildfire.

Benton acknowledged that people are currently on edge about school shootings, but he strongly discouraged sharing gossip on social media.

That sentiment is echoed by Kingsport Police Department Public Information Officer Tom Patton. He said similar alleged threats have ignited rumors about planned attacks at schools in the city, but no one could direct police to posts directly made by a suspect or share screenshots.

“The problem with citizens spreading these unsubstantiated rumors — some of which have been making the rounds for months or even years on the Internet — is that they cause unnecessary panic and alarm in the general public,” Patton said. “By the time we realize they aren’t true, hundreds or even thousands of people have already read them.”

Patton said all purported threats were investigated thoroughly, but none were found to have any  “basis in fact whatsoever.” He added that anyone who does come across an alarming post should copy the URL and make a screenshot, which would help detectives investigate and hold the suspect accountable.

In Sullivan County on Thursday, a social media post triggered charges against pair of students at Sullivan North High School. According to Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Andy Seabolt, a student reported someone accessing his Facebook account and making threats to “shoot up the school.”

A school resource officer quickly determined that two juvenile students were responsible for the posts. Both were charged with felony false reporting.

The local incidents follow a national trend. Since the mass school shooting earlier this month in Parkland, Fla., media across the country report a surge in false reports of violence and threats in schools.

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