Online scare, response unfurl on social media

September 25, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

The threat against Skyline High School unfolded almost entirely in the social media realm — as students took to Twitter and Facebook to dissect the threat, school district officials used the tools to calm parents’ fears and investigators probed online for clues.

In the late-night hours of Sept. 19, as police and school administrators determined how to address a purported mass shooting on the Skyline campus the next day, students traded information and innuendo on social networking services.

Just before midnight, after Issaquah School District officials decided to close Skyline on Sept. 20, as emails and phone calls reached parents, simultaneous updates appeared on the district’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The district updated the school community in bursts throughout the next day.

Cleveland-based school safety consultant Kenneth Trump lauded the Issaquah School District for using available resources — Facebook and Twitter, in addition to more traditional email and phone messages — to alert the school community.

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Typically, school districts adopt a strategy of “downplay, deny, deflect and defend” to handle crises, Trump said. He nicknamed text message-obsessed high schoolers as Generation Text for the age group’s proficiency with mobile devices and social networking sites.

“Oftentimes, it’s the lack of information that creates more anxiety than the threat itself,” he added.

(Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, is a longtime expert on school safety and has advised educators in Washington state.)

Meanwhile, investigators scoured the Internet for the user behind the threatening post on the online bulletin board 4chan.

Police have not identified a suspect in the shooting threat against Skyline, despite several interviews and a forensic investigation by the King County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI.

Michael Dorn, a school safety consultant based in Macon, Ga., said Internet anonymity emboldens people to make empty boasts online.

“There’s this notion that I can say it online and because I’m not face to face with you,” then social norms do not apply, he said.

(Dorn’s company, Safe Havens International, has advised more than 2,000 schools around the globe, including schools in Washington state.)

Investigators said a 4Chan user posted a similar threat against Lynnwood’s Meadowdale High School in April. Officials closed Meadowdale to students April 13 in response to the threat.

Despite a similar investigation into the Meadowdale threat, police have not yet identified a perpetrator.

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