Posts on TikTok warning of mass violence at schools nationwide Friday are not credible, police say, but they still intensified widespread feelings of unease as the holiday break approaches.
Some campuses shuttered out of an abundance of caution, others increased their police presence, and many parents kept their kids home — despite school leaders and law enforcement telling families not to be alarmed.
It’s a fraught time for schools, staff and families when it comes to violence and student behavior. A Dec. 1 school shooting in Michigan, where a sophomore at Oxford High School killed four students and wounded seven other people, has left nerves jangled — especially because school staff had alarming evidence something was amiss and kept the alleged shooter in class.
Oxford aftermath:Family of student wounded in shooting sues school district
Gun violence in schools this fall has risen compared with pre-pandemic times. Between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30, at least 104 incidents on school grounds killed 20 people and wounded 79, according to advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
The worry: Kids back in class are not, actually, all right. The pandemic caused up to a year and a half of upturned learning. It heightened emotional, economic and physical stress. With kids back in class this fall, negative behaviors led to a major spike in discipline infractions, from violence and fights to verbal altercations and vandalism.
“The kids are not OK,” said Melissa Bello, a mother of young children in Needham, Massachusetts, near Boston. She’s not concerned about the TikTok challenge, specifically. Instead, she worries the public’s attention isn’t focused on a larger nationwide conversation about student mental health.
“It’s a huge outcry for help, and I think that message is getting missed,” she said.
TikTok challenge alarms teachers
The “National Shoot Up Your School Day” trend rumored on TikTok raised concerns about students committing acts of violence on Dec. 17. Some posts warned against students attending class, but none named specific schools or districts.
Police at departments nationwide said the threat was not credible, but many sent additional patrols to schools anyway, often at the request of districts.
TikTok debunked the threats as rumors in a Twitter thread this week, adding that the Federal Bureau of Investigations looked into it.
On Friday morning, the company reported it still had not found content that promoted violence in schools — only videos discussing the rumor.
A small number of districts in many states still closed schools as a precaution.
One police chief in Watertown, South Dakota, shared one of the posts in a news release to dispel rumors around it.
Even if unsubstantiated, the posts and the buzz around them raised alarms for teachers.
“These types of threats and social media trends are very disturbing and in no way amusing,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said Friday in a statement.
The national teachers union earlier this fall had already asked CEOs of social media companies like TikTok, Facebook and Twitter to better curtail trends promoting harm to teachers or schools.
Back in September, a TikTok trend called “devious licks” challenged students to steal or vandalize school property. The trend, which encouraged students to film and post their antics, gained traction. Teens across the country were arrested.
A few weeks later, an image circulated online supposedly listing “devious licks” challenges for the following months. October’s challenge was to “smack a staff member,” according to the list.
It’s unclear who was behind the list and whether its more sinister challenges – which in some cases promoted sexual assault – came to fruition. But the prospect of such a trend taking over schools further stressed educators at a time of high burnout and staff turnover.
R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent with the Novi Community School District in Michigan, said social media has led to an explosion of threats that come at “lightning speed” for districts to investigate.
Webber said his district reviews everything sent to them and consults with police officers in schools to determine their credibility. For instance, a credible threat often pictures a weapon or a caption that’s threatening or intimidating.
But the process usually isn’t straightforward.
“Things that are obvious are if we find a student with a plan,” he said.
Parents don’t know what to do
On Friday morning in Wauconda, Illinois, Trisha Masterson dropped her five children off at school and noticed additional police cars.
She received two letters about the TikTok threats from school Thursday, including an edit in the second saying parents shouldn’t be alarmed. Masterson talked with her children about it and gave them all the choice to attend school Friday. They said yes.
But once there, one of her older kids asked if she could get out of the car to give them all hugs before they passed the police cars to go inside.
“As a mom, it really stinks for your kids to need a hug before going into school because of fear,” Masterson said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
She worries about her children’s anxiety and comfort at school moving forward.
“They’re already more anxious because of how much their learning experience has changed during the pandemic,” she said. “And now we’re telling them, ‘Also, you can’t even feel safe here anymore.’ “
In and around Boston, some districts did not send alerts about the threats Thursday, because they didn’t want to raise alarms around something deemed not credible. But parents also debated whether that decision was right, said Bello, the mom in Needham.
Many parents were already on alert after news earlier that week of a juvenile breaking into and vandalizing Needham High School, from graffiti to destroying display cases and their items, and spraying fire extinguishers in common areas.
“There’s clearly something going on that our public health officials are not appropriately weighing,” she said.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends parents make time to reassure children they’re safe, and talk to them about school violence in a developmentally appropriate way. The group offers a tip sheet for talking to kids about violence.
“One of the biggest things is having hope,” said Lauren Mangus, president of the Michigan Association of School Psychologists. “Having hope for kids and for families and for all of us is going to be so critical.”
Kids and adults need to put themselves on a personal “charging deck” when they’re stressed, she said. That means engaging in activities or processes that calm you down, relax you or connect you to others in meaningful ways.
“We are definitely overextended in flexibility, but we can get ourselves back in line and recharge ourselves,” she said.
Contributing: Christine Fernando and Alia Wong, USA TODAY; Scott Waltman, Watertown Public Opinion; Lily Altavena, Detroit Free Press
Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.Internet Explorer Channel Network