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Social media threats against Detroit-area schools prompt warning from officials

Detroit’s selective Cass Technical High School saw its state ranking sink by 57 points in 2016 — one of dozens of Michigan schools that saw dramatic swings in their rankings after Michigan changed the tests kids take and the formula behind the rankings.

A recent series of social media threats of school violence has plagued schools in Metro Detroit, including Cass Technical High School, pictured here.

Makiah Quinn heard the rumors of a school threat the night before school. Across her social media feed earlier this month, classmates were sharing their fears about a student potentially coming to school armed. 

“I was immediately afraid to go to school the next day,” said Makiah, a senior at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School. “It’s hard to tell when they are jokes and when they are serious. So it kind of made everybody nervous and reluctant.”

Threats of school violence have become more common on social media, especially since the deadly shootings at Uvalde Elementary School in Texas in May and at Oxford High School in Michigan a year ago this month. The spike has prompted state, school and law enforcement officials to warn of tough action against people caught making threats.

Many of the threats have proved to be hoaxes. But in a time of heightened awareness surrounding school safety and misinformation, they have increased anxiety and fear among students, staff and families

Last week, multiple schools in the metro area — from Detroit to Ferndale and Hazel Park — reported instances of prank or copycat threats shared on social media. Some communities ordered lockdowns or early dismissals, while others, including the Detroit Public Schools Community District, held off, based on the credibility of the threats.

None of the threats reported at Detroit schools last week, including at Cass Tech, A.L. Holmes Academy of Blended Learning and Mumford High School were deemed credible, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

“It doesn’t mean that we dismiss social media threats,” Vitti said during a Nov. 15 school board meeting. “Everyone of them are investigated, and everyone of them are reported to the school community where the threat is linked to.”

Not all threats are the same, Vitti cautioned, and district officials don’t always close schools in response. In many of the recent cases, students circulated hoax threats as a prank or in an attempt to have school dismissed early or canceled. “This year alone we would have closed countless schools on countless days if we were just closing school for every threat,” Vitti said.

While the threats are often not real, the potential consequences for students caught posting them are. They range from misdemeanor charges for threatening violence against school staff or students or “malicious use of a telecommunications device,” to felony charges of terrorism for bomb threats, according to a video shared last week by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

“Whether these are real threats made by those intent on doing harm or pranks made by kids trying to get a day off, they are real crimes with real consequences,” Nessel said in a statement accompanying the video.

The district has been able to identify most of the individuals behind social media threats over the past school year, using cybersecurity tools, Vitti said. “Nearly all of them were removed from their individual school, recommended for expulsion from the school district, which is about a year, and most of them were also arrested,” he said.

Vitti’s call to action for parents: Monitor children’s social media use.

“You have to monitor your children’s phones,” he said. “The parent is the adult, not the child. Having a phone is not a right, it’s a privilege.”

At a Detroit Board of Police Commissioners meeting last week, Police Chief James White stressed the seriousness of online threats. The Detroit Police Department regularly partners with DPSCD’s public safety officers when executing school lockdowns and investigating threats.

“When we see it, we can’t take it lightly,” White said. “This thing can haunt (kids) for the rest of their lives, and they can completely change the trajectory of an otherwise successful life by one silly posting on Facebook.”

Given a search warrant, White said, police departments can request access to user information from social media companies before making an arrest. White recommended that the city’s police commission host a forum to educate students on the real-life risks of posting online threats.

Students said school officials need to do more than combat threats to put students at ease.

“I don’t think that they can really prevent a student from making a threat,” said Amira Jones, a sophomore at Cass Tech. “But I do think (schools) need to work on their security, like actually use the metal detectors instead of just letting people walk through them. They need to actually pay attention to what’s going on.”

Amira said that from her classroom on the building’s sixth floor, she wondered how she’d be able to get out of school if something were to happen.

“I think the thing that worries me the most is just like, not knowing if it’s real or not,” Amira said. “I like to know if something’s actually going to happen or not. And I think not knowing was what made me start to overthink.”

Others wanted school officials to acknowledge students’ fears.

“If that many students felt unsafe, we should have just had that day off, just for the safety of everybody and just for the peace of mind as well,” said Makiah, the Cass Tech senior. 

Some of her classmates used their class’s group chat to share messages, periodically warning others to “be careful” and “watch your back.” When word broke out among Cass Tech students that both Ferndale Middle School and High School had gone into lockdown, it only raised the anxiety.

“I was pretty nervous,” Makiah said. “I wasn’t even able to focus on schoolwork anyway, so there was no point in being there.”

Schools that were the targets of social media threats received increased police presence last week. 

Vicki Hooks Green, an English teacher at Cass Tech, said that given the increase in security, she wasn’t personally concerned about the social media threat at her school.

“I think that the threats should be taken seriously, as in the kids should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for doing it, but I don’t think we should take it seriously to the point where we’re afraid,” Green said.

But she does worry about the time it takes away from the classroom. Even “if it’s five or six kids who don’t come because of the threat,” she said, that means “I have to accommodate those kids and whatever they miss.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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