The Impact of Social Media on School Threats

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Written by: J. Lasswell
April 10, 2023

Analyzing the role of social media platforms in spreading and identifying threats.

“Things are slowly starting to spiral downhill again…At this point, I don’t care whether I kill myself or not…It’s okay, I’m getting used to being lied to and abandoned…”

These are segments of a series of tweets posted by a high school student that would later commit suicide. While this language is notably intentional, perhaps even pleading for a response, it is still an example of leakage, which refers to the disclosure of clues about a student's emotions, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that may indicate an imminent violent act, whether intentional or unintentional.

“F*** it! Might as well die now!!!...Your gonna piss me off…And then some s*** gonna go down and I don't think you’re gonna like it!” These are segments of a series of tweets posted by a similar student, except this student’s rage and unhappiness were directed toward his class in the form of a shooting, in which people were killed.

Social media use permeates all facets of daily life, so it’s no surprise that school safety has been massively influenced by what students post online. With 97% of teenagers going online daily and 46% stating that they are online constantly, social media platforms have become a hotbed for the spreading and identifying of threats. Because of this, school threat assessments are largely driven by the patterns and behavioral history of a student’s social media footprint. An online atmosphere allows students to express their authentic emotions, motivations, and impulses without immediate scorn from an authority, offering a new obstacle and a new ability in the scope of threat assessing: spreading toxic and violent ideas to peers has never been easier, but there is an opportunity to identify warning signs that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

One of the main challenges that schools face is the prevalence of cyber aggression. Between 9% and 35% of young people are victims of cyber aggression, while between 4% and 21% are perpetrators. Additionally, 14.8% of students have reported being electronically bullied via email, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites, or texting. While cyberbullying is nominal compared to the scope of threats at school, instances of cyberbullying are most important to the context of a student's behavioral patterns and must be investigated in the threat assessment process. 

As a recent study shows, social media has been a common method used by students to make bombing and shooting threats. In a six-month study conducted between August 2013 and January 2014, 315 school bomb threats were documented, and 35% of them were made through electronic means such as social media, email, or text messages. Another study conducted between August 2014 and December 2014 documented 812 school shootings and bomb threats, with 37% of them made through electronic means, such as social media, email, or text messages. The majority of these threats were hoaxes, but as we’ve seen in 2022-2023, school shooting hoaxes have an unexpectedly negative impact on school communities and the mental health of their people. Even if the majority of threats written, spoken, graffiti’d, or posted online are hoaxes, it’s clear that the majority of threats in school communities are communicated through social media.

Here in Chicago, CPS has implemented a Canadian-designed system to monitor the social media activity of their students. The system uses random keyword searches of public social media profiles to find troubling posts from students. The program isn’t employed to find student posts that violate school codes and administer diciplinary actions; the focus of these programs is to identify actionable threats and report them to law enforcement. After over a year of its use, the program was compared to a control group of schools with similar demographics, and it was found that participating schools had significantly fewer misconduct incidents, suspensions, and better attendance, but no statistically significant difference in the risk of becoming a shooting victim or being arrested. Interviews with teachers and administrators revealed that many conflicts at school start on social media, with some taking the initiative to monitor posts in their free time.

After a social media threat is identified, it is treated just as any other written or verbal threat: the threat is classified as either transient or substantive, the threat is reported, the threat is considered alongside the threatener’s behavioral history, all witnesses are interviewed (a witness for a social media-born threat could be someone who received a message online or engaged with the post), the threat is classified, and a response to the action is administered. You can learn more about the threat assessment process here. Similarly to other threats, if troubling online posts by a student are identified, a school’s threat assessment team may intervene by involving the threatener’s parents, a mental health service, or even law enforcement if the threat is actionable.

While there have been criticisms of monitoring student social media for threats of violence, the argument that student privacy supersedes the necessity to identify and repel threats is a flawed one. The use of CCTV cameras in public places is widely accepted as necessary for the safety of citizens, as they deter criminal activity and provide evidence in the event of a crime. Similarly, monitoring student social media posts for threats of violence can be viewed as a necessary safety measure. Just as public spaces do not provide the expectation of privacy, virtual public spaces like social media also do not guarantee privacy. By monitoring social media posts, schools can identify potential threats and intervene before any harm is done. Of course, it's important to ensure that any monitoring is done in an ethical and responsible manner.

The prevalence of social media in students' lives requires a multifaceted approach to school safety. Schools need to educate students on recognizing warning signs on social media platforms, while also taking steps to monitor online activity and identify potential threats. Social media has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and interact with one another -  as likewise created new challenges for school safety and provided new insights into the reality of how students think. By understanding the potential threats posed by social media and taking proactive steps to monitor and identify potential threats, schools can help ensure the safety of their community.