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Editorial: School threats spread like wildfire on social media

Editorial Board • Nov 28, 2019 at 8:30 AM

What will it take to impress on young people that threats of school violence are no laughing matter?

Several school districts in the region unnecessarily were placed on alert last week because of false threats perpetuated on social media.

In the case of Kingsport’s Dobyns-Bennett High School, hysteria was furthered by a viral explosion of misinformation, leading many to believe an active shooter was on campus.

Elizabethton schools went into a “soft lockdown” as a precautionary measure amid the Kingsport investigation. Earlier in the week, police arrested a student after threats were made on social media against Elizabethton High School.

In Hawkins County, Cherokee High School was forced to investigate what turned out to be two bogus bomb threats scrawled on bathroom walls.

In Johnson City, police said they had arrested a 16-year-old student who read a threat about another district on Facebook Messenger, altered it to say it was about the city’s high and middle schools, and spread it using Snapchat.

School pranks are nothing new, of course, but considering the massive loss of life from school shootings in recent decades, these threats are serious business. They not only disrupt school operations, they exhaust law enforcement’s time and resources and create incredible anxiety for students, parents and school officials.

Parents should be particularly concerned about the “boy who cried wolf” effect. Frequent bogus threats could give students a false sense of security, making them less likely to take a real threat seriously and report it. Worse, they could laugh off an active campus emergency.

To their credit, local school and law enforcement officials are treating every incident with full gravity. The arrests in Elizabethton and Johnson City are proof of that.

But schools and police are up against an increasingly destructive element — social media. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms have become unwieldy juggernauts of misinformation. That’s a shame, because in the right hands, electronic communication can provide vital information during emergencies.

We urge parents to instill a sense of responsibility in children when it comes to how they use social media. Electronic media’s well-documented dangers for young people — predators, bullies and sexual behavior in particular — are reason enough for parents to take a more discerning role.

Add school threats to that list.

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