Educators challenged by social media and rumor control

Rumors at school are nothing new, but text messaging and social media allow rumors to spread much faster and further than before. A growing number of school officials these days are finding themselves in situations of social media management and damage control.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

In the wake of last month's school shooting in Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed at an elementary school, rumors spread across the country via Twitter and Facebook that more violence would follow, putting students and parents on edge.

But even before that tragedy, Minnesota school officials say they were spending more time than in previous years responding to rumors that spread through social media.

In December, for example, the principal of North Jr. High School in Hopkins, Minn., had to go on damage control the day after a student accidentally cut himself with a craft knife in a technical education class.

Principal Becky Melville said the boy's injury was no big deal, and he received a Band-Aid and went back to class. Melville forgot all about the incident by evening and was settling in at home, when she learned the incident had caused a stir.

"I got a phone call and an email about a stabbing that had occurred at North," said Melville, who needed to conduct some detective work to determine what happened.

As it turned out, the same day the student was bandaged up for his run-in with the craft knife, several police cars were spotted outside the school. Shortly thereafter, rumors began swirling on Twitter and Facebook: there had been a stabbing at the school.

"Many parents receive some sort of communication prior to what they receive from the school district... But that's just the age we're living in."

But police officers had been the school simply to take a few students Christmas shopping, during a "shop with a cop" event.

The next day Melville took to social media herself to put out the word on what really happened.

"The only way you can work with that is to use that same social media for your benefit to spread the right information as quickly," she said.

A growing number of school officials find themselves in such situations these days.

Schools are full of students with smart phones, young journalists of a sort who are able to immediately broadcast through posts or tweets whatever happens in school ā€” even if it is not always 100 percent factual.

Of course, rumors at school are nothing new, but social media allows them to spread much faster and further.

"A lot of times there's word that gets out before we are sure what's happening," said Linda Madsen, superintendent of the Forest Lake school district.

On one level, Madsen said, social media is a great way for students to reach out to their parents when something is happening at school, such as a lockdown. They can let their parents know that they're safe when something occurs.

But Madsen said the speed of social media posts can lead parents to call schools to find out what is going on before school officials have gathered all the facts themselves.

"Many parents receive some sort of communication prior to what they receive from the school district," Madsen said. "But that's just the age we're living in."

When it comes to threats of violence, school officials say they investigate every rumor they hear, even if their gut instinct tells them it's a hoax.

Chaska High School closed for a day last week because a threat of violence via email disrupted the start of the school day, said Brett Johnson, spokesman for the Eastern Carver County School district.

"They know based on all the history of school threats they're most likely hoaxes but they don't ever take one initially as a hoax," Johnson said of school administrators. "They take it seriously, they evaluate it they decide what they're plan of action is going to be."

Johnson said school officials, with the help of authorities, are getting better tracing threats, especially those that appear online.

Students who make threats, even if they never intended to hurt anyone, could find themselves in trouble. Consequences vary but often include suspensions and can even involve criminal charges.

ā€¢ Follow Tim Post on Twitter:

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.