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Social media threats cause uproar at Utah schools

A TikTok social media threat had some parents concerned for student safety.
Solen Feyissa
A TikTok social media threat had some parents concerned for student safety.

Recent threats of violence at several Utah schools have prompted heightened safety precautions. A social media post circulated last week suggesting that school shootings would take place on December 17.

The responses came in the aftermath of separate threats at three school districts earlier in the week in Box Elder, Granite and Salt Lake. Those districts went on lockdowns or moved classes online.

On Friday, there was another incident at East High School in Salt Lake City, where one student was arrested for bringing a firearm and ammunition to school.

There is an ongoing investigation but no confirmation whether the case was related to a Tik Tok-based social media threat, according to school district officials.

Many parents from different districts went on Facebook to express their concerns about school safety. Some caretakers let their kids stay home as a precautionary measure.

Pamela Brubaker, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, has co-authored a study on social media trolling and threats. Brubaker said these social media trends often start as jokes.

She said some of the motivation behind these social media posts is designed to instigate negative reactions from an online audience, but there is also a real life impact.

“It's basically a prank trying to get someone upset, but we can't just take it as a prank,” Brubaker said. “We have to take it seriously and we have to be able to respond and protect our communities. Both our online communities and our offline communities. 

So far this year, there have been 32 school shootings nationwide, according to the publication Education Week.

Brubaker said people can be empowered to speak out online because there’s a sense of anonymity.

This level of anonymity or pseudo anonymity that the internet provides can exacerbate some of these tendencies to have a lack of empathy towards others,” she said. “When you're anonymous — you're kind of masked. You can be almost anyone you want.”

Sgt. Jeremy Barnes, school safety liaison for the Utah Department of Public Safety, said they received a tip about the social media trend.

He said they have to analyze these situations on a case by case basis. Barnes said school administrators use a multidisciplinary threat assessment to figure out whether a threat is credible or not.

“We can't overreact about a situation. We can't underreact about a situation,” Barnes said. “We have to look at it independently. The problem with each one of these, whether it ends up not being credible, [or] credible. Whether or not it ends up being a joke, and somebody [is trying] to be funny. It takes resources. 

Student and school safety specialist for the Utah Board of Education Rhett Larsen said there should be a shared responsibility between parents and schools to monitor these types of online behaviors.

I think it is important for parents and caregivers to know what their child is involved in and what's taking place,” Larsen said. “So that they can provide adequate support as necessary and make sure that they're being safe. Not just looking to see if they pose a threat, but also are they in a dangerous circumstance themselves?”

Barnes acknowledged that these threats affect the learning environment for students and staff. But he emphasizes that for the most part, schools are safe places.

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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