Last February, a threat made on social media forced a lock-down across the DeKalb County School District.
It was a part of a wave of threats made to schools in days and weeks following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. The incident in DeKalb did not end in tragedy, but it made school district officials think about their emergency protocols.
Normal communication channels can easily be thrown out during an emergency as students and parents scramble to find out what’s happening. So schools have to work twice as quickly to figure out what the social media threat means and convey that accurately to the community.
James Horne is the principal of DeKalb High School.
He said, “And usually what we’ll have to do is actually just start going through kids and saying ‘who had it, who shared it’ and start backtracking that way."
In 2017, there were over 3,000 threats of violence made to schools in the U.S. That was a 62 percent jump from the previous year.
In the case of DeKalb, even if the threat is false -- the emotional impact on students and community is real.
“A situation comes and goes, we still have the lasting effects from students,” said Amanda Minogue, a social worker at DeKalb High School.
“Some students report daily that they don’t feel safe.”
That’s why counselors and social workers like Minogue spend the first few weeks of school just getting to know their students.
“That paves the way for later on down the year, should a crisis come up they can start to feel comfortable to seek me out as a social worker or seek out their counselors because they have that trust,” she said. “They have that foundation level which is really important.”
Some schools report that a majority of their disciplinary issues stem from social media.
But the issues aren’t limited to disciplinary action. Most of the problems it presents are social-emotional. That’s true for younger students, like middle schoolers, as well.
“I would say most of our students at a 6th to 8th-grade school, so we’re talking 11-14 year olds, most of them, regardless of socioeconomic status, have a smartphone,” said Clinton-Rosette Middle School principal Tim Vincent.
He also spoke about how social media and technology can raise concerns outside of just cyberbullying. At his school, this is often as a result of DeKalb being a 1-1 district -- which means every student has a Chromebook.
“There’s a system in which any Google search, any document the student types in, any email they send; It’s essentially there are keywords and phrases that are kind of screened and there are a lot of alerts there,” he said.
Vincent says that it’s more often a threat to themselves rather than to others.
“It’s alarming,” he said.
“But at the same time, because of the sheer number of that that goes on, but it’s also it’s comforting to me that we have an immediate pipeline into the frame of mind that a student is in at a given time, and we can support them.”
Social worker Amy Minogue also sees where social media can help bring issues to their attention.
“We have a lot of kids come down here and refer their friends,” said Minogue.
“Or say so-and-so posted something negative on social media, whether that be a post on Facebook or a Snapchat saying they might want to end their lives or they seem like they have suicidal tendencies, or they’re just worried about them.”
Even at the high school level, with kids that have grown up on social media, it’s difficult for them to fully grasp the potential impact of what they say online.
“They can’t look into the future and go, well I want to do x, y and z for my career, and don’t realize that maybe they’re ruining that career when they’re 14, 15, 16 years old,” said Sycamore High School Principal Tim Carlson.
He says it’s gotten easier now that teachers and administrators can point to real life examples of people who’ve run into trouble because of an old tweet or Snapchat.
In light of that, many schools, including Sycamore, have put an emphasis on creating a “positive digital footprint.”
“How much stuff can we put on the internet with our kids' name attached to it that’s good. Whether they produce it or whether we produce it. So when somebody does a Google search, hopefully, they're finding good information about our kids, not negative information,” said Carlson.
Teachers are also continuing to integrate social media into the classroom. That’s often through things like Twitter polls or Facebook groups.
It can be effective to mix social media into the right classroom discussions too. That’s according to DeKalb High School Principal James Horne.
“Any time you can contextualize something to a students' prior experience, to students range of connection to how they experience the world -- the more likely they are to grasp the concept that you're getting at,” said Horne.
But even if that sounds like a fresh idea, it’s still the same thing teachers have been trying to do for decades.