Social media blamed for amping anxiety over perceived school threat

Published 12:21 pm Thursday, November 16, 2017

Misinformation spread on social media “spun out of control” and created alarm about an alleged threat at Danville High School earlier this month — a threat that never really existed, officials said.

The Nov. 2-3 incident was discussed in full by the Danville Board of Education Monday night, as officials debriefed board members on what happened when, and why.

Danville Police Chief Tony Gray said everything began when, on the night of Thursday, Nov. 2, someone notice a social media post by a Danville student and felt like the post implied the student meant to cause harm at the high school the following day, Friday, Nov. 3.

Email newsletter signup

“The comment was made on Tuesday. He said something about Friday, but it really wasn’t a threat. It was a comment,” Gray said. “I guess you could see it as a far-reaching threat.”

The comment referred to bringing something to school on Friday, he said. Most students who had seen the social media comment dismissed it, Gray said — including his own son, a DHS student.

“He saw the post and didn’t think anything about it,” Gray said. “Words can mean different things for different people. I can say, ‘I’ve got something for you on Friday.’ Do you think that’s a threat?”

But on Thursday night, someone saw it and became concerned, alerting school staff and law enforcement.

In these cases, Gray said, it’s always best to follow the mantra, “if you see something, say something.”

After speaking to the teen and his family, Gray said he believed the teen meant no harm. The boy was referring to bringing something in for a class.

“There was no argument. It was just a social media post … it was something for a class and that was it,” Gray said.

For safety reasons, the student was kept home from school on Nov 3. Additional police presence was visible that day as well.

The school issued a Facebook post at about 10:44 p.m. Thursday, after a phone call to parents to notify them of the situation. The post encouraged students to be at school “on time and ready to learn,” in spite of any perceived threats, which had been taken care of by police and school administration.

Gray also posted via the Danville Police Department’s page, letting the public know the student in question would not be attending and that police would be visible.

Board Chair Paige Matthews said she had asked for Gray to be on the agenda to talk about the incident.

“There was just so much confusion, especially at the last minute,” Matthews said. “You like to think you’re not going to deal with this very often and you hope that, for us, this is it for the rest of the year. In all reality, that may not be the case.”

“I think, in this issue, social media made it a major issue, but it really wasn’t a huge issue,” Gray said. “It kind of got spun out of control as it carried on into the night.”

Gray said he thought Danville High School principal Haley Springate-Ralston handled the situation as she should have, by notifying parents via phone and social media outlets, and attempting to “squelch fears and concerns.”

“I felt the message she put out was right, but maybe some of the people on social media didn’t heed that,” he said.

Matthews said she didn’t feel it was ever too late to make the phone calls to alert parents to a safety issue, but “I may be in the minority on that.”

She said she had gotten word from some parents who felt the messages were a “little different.”

“That’s the issue with social media. Everyone’s going to get on there and start asking their own questions,” Matthews said. “How do you do it in a way where you give the most concise information with as much information as you can? There may be times where you can’t give as much information as parents want you to give.”

Gray said the lateness of the hour was coupled with the fact that his department handled 90 calls unrelated to the school situation that night, making it a rather “crazy night.”

“I think all of those factors make it an odd situation,” he said.

School Resource Officer Chase Broach, a Danville Police officer based at the school, said the whole thing “evolved at an incredibly high rate of speed.”

“The disappointing part for me — a lot of it was fueled by our students,” he said. “You realize that these students that I see every day as young adults are still kids. And they made a childish mistake. Mrs. Ralston’s calling me and she’s heard this. Now we’re backtracking and trying to figure out, before we send out a message or create a panic or fear, we have to figure out ‘What is the threat? How specific is it?’ We have to work backwards. There were a lot of links in the chain,” Broach said.

Board member Steven Becker said he had gotten phone calls saying the message was put out too slowly, but tried to remind them that it takes time.

“Social media is so fast and it’s usually very inaccurate. That starts a ground swell even before the information can get out,” he said. “… I do think that everything that took place was the proper way to do it. But it does take time. You can’t just do this instantaneously.”

Superintendent Keith Look said it was important that they don’t allow the “fear of the wrong message prevent folks from putting out a message.”

“We should always err on the side of notification. At the minimum, it puts people on heightened awareness,” he said.

Look commended the Danville High School administration for “hustling” to find out what was going on and ensure student safety.

On Wednesday, Look said he was “proud” of the way the administration had handled the situation.

“These situations are never easy. Each one has its own unique set of circumstances. As a district, when we are investigating, it is our duty to protect students. That includes the alleged victims and the alleged perpetrators,” Look said.

Whether the threat had turned out to be credible or not wasn’t the point, Look said — it still had to be investigated.

“We don’t get the luxury of dismissing … The risk of being wrong is way too great.”

He encouraged parents and students to report concerns and, “the earlier the better, so the district can continue with a high success rate.”