How to Judge School Safety Rumors

As parents of LMMS students know, there were multiple reports of threats by students last week in the school. School officials took these threats seriously, conducted thorough investigations, followed up on numerous different tips and reports, involved the state police, and updated parents on two different occasions. In the end, all this work confirmed that there were no credible threats to the safety of the school.

The incident generated a great deal of fear and anxiety not so much because of the nature of the alleged threats, but because of the many rumors that started flying among parents regarding the incident. So now that the dust has settled a bit, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how we might separate fact from rumor and gossip in the future. As a starting point, let me offer four questions we all might ask ourselves when we hear scary stories about school safety:

1. Is this something I’m hearing first hand, from the original source?

Or is it something somebody I know heard from someone else. Direct experience is far more credible than stories heard second- or third-hand.

2. Is the source I’m hearing from credible?

Anyone can post anything to social media, whether true or not. Official school announcements, legitimate news outlets, police press conferences, and so forth are more credible than social media posts because the information from such sources is more likely to have been vetted and confirmed.

3. Is the story I’m hearing specific?

Threats that include concrete details about who, what, where, when and so forth are more credible than generalized ones that lack such details.

4. Has the source I’m hearing from already reported the incident to the appropriate authorities?

Credible, first-hand information about potential threats should be reported to school officials, law enforcement officials, or the PA Safe2Say hotline. If the story isn’t credible enough to report to these places, then we probably shouldn’t take it seriously either.

I don’t blame people for giving in to hysteria in situations involving school safety. We’re living in an environment right now where everyone from the media to politicians to marketers seem to be doing everything they can to make us scared. But this generalized fear is leading us to make poor decisions that ultimately hurt our kids. This certainly happened last week at LMMS, where parents believed– and shared– all kinds of unfounded stories about what was happening in the school: A student has planned a massacre. A student has a gun in school. A dangerous student is still in school. Administrators are hiding the facts. No, no, no, and no. These unfounded rumors stoked unfounded fears of already anxious parents and students, who then shared and believed more unsubstantiated rumors, leading to more fear and anxiety, and so on. In the end, a large number of parents kept their kids from school last Wednesday out of fear generated by these wild stories, and the PA state police had to station officers at the school to calm the fears created by the rumor mill.

The Dangers of Hysteria

One lesson? Unsubstantiated rumors and gossip can cause real harm to the safety and wellbeing of our schools and our kids. For example, the rumors last week– particularly on social media– created the following dangers:

  • They unnecessarily raised anxiety and alarm of many students, harming their mental health, their ability to concentrate, and do well in school.
  • They sucked police resources away from needed law enforcement duties. State police had to spend time being seen at LMMS, to reassure fears of parents and students. These police were therefore not out patrolling our neighborhoods, investigating crimes, etc.
  • They reduced instruction at LMMS for all students. So many parents responded to the unsubstantiated rumors by keeping their kids home from school last Wednesday that the standardized test given on that day had to be given again the following day. This robbed all students, even those who were present Wednesday, from valuable instructional time at a period in the school year when they are already spending too much time on standardized testing.
  • They led certain students at LMMS to be falsely targeted and accused of things they didn’t do. This is an increasingly serious problem nationwide. For a great, concrete, example listen to the podcast “No One Called Me Shooter” about a situation that unfolded in Oregon last year.

The Devil is in the Details

There are parents who feel the school should have provided more details about the many tips and reports they received at LMMS last week. This feeling is certainly understandable, but there are very good reasons why every little detail of every school incident can’t be shared with the entire community:

  • Strict federal privacy rules prohibit schools from publicizing details of a student’s disciplinary record. While the rumors floating around LMMS last week may have seemed more pressing than student privacy, the actual incidents– stripped of the rumors– may not have risen to that level.
  • Law enforcement officials often request that schools don’t release details that might hinder their investigation, or make it more difficult to prosecute in cases where a crime has actually been committed.
  • It’s impossible to predict when or what rumors will emerge around many incidents, and so no amount of detail about a situation can possibly head off every possible rumor.
  • It’s impossible to communicate enough details of many incidents for parents to conduct their own independent investigation of the seriousness of a threat. This is why we have trained professional educators and trained professional counselors and trained professional mental health experts in our schools, and why these officials reach out to trained professional law enforcement for assistance in case of alleged threats to school safety.

Let’s do more to separate fact from fiction in the school incidents that will inevitably arise in the future. And if you’re interested in a more in-depth, meaningful, discussion of the larger issue of school safety, I would welcome the opportunity to bring my face-to-face presentation “School Security in an Age of Fear” to your PTO meeting, church meeting, book club, or any other group of community members who want to do more about safety in our schools.

PS: Sadly, the incident at LMMS last week isn’t the first time we’ve experienced this kind of panic in the district. Here’s some posts on other incidents that may be of use:

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