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Online threats against Detroit schools prompt warnings from officials

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Makia Quinn heard rumors of a threat at the school the night before school. Earlier this month, classmates shared their fears about a student coming to school with a gun on her social media feed.

“I immediately dreaded going to school the next day,” said Macchia, a senior at Detroit Cass Technical High School. “It’s hard to tell if it’s a joke or if it’s serious. So it made everyone nervous and reluctant.”

Threats of school violence have become more common on social media, especially after the deadly shooting at Uvalde Elementary School in Texas in May and Art Oxford High School in Michigan a year ago this month. The surge has prompted state, school and law enforcement agencies to warn of tougher action against people caught making threats.

Many of the threats turned out to be hoaxes. But in a time of heightened school safety awareness and misinformation, they did increasing anxiety and fear among students, staff and families.

Last week, several schools in the metro area – from Detroit to Ferndale and Hazel Park — cases of mischief or mock threats that were distributed on social networks were reported. Some communities have ordered lockdowns or early dismissals, while others, including the Detroit Public Schools District, have balked, citing the credibility of the threats.

None of the threats reported at Detroit schools last week, including at Cass Tech, AL Holmes Blended Learning Academy and Mumford High School were found to be trustworthy– said foreman Mikalai Viti.

“That doesn’t mean we’re dismissive of threats on social media,” Vitti said during the meeting November 15 school board meeting. “Each of them is being investigated and each of them has been reported to the school community that the threat is related to.”

Not all threats are the same, Vitti warned, and district officials don’t always close schools in response. In many recent cases, students have circulated false threats as a prank or in an attempt to get early dismissal or cancellation of school. “This year alone, we would have closed countless schools for countless days if we just closed a school for every threat,” Vitti said.

Although the threats are often not real, the potential consequences for students caught making them are. They range from misdemeanor charges for threats of violence against school staff or students or “malicious use of a telecommunications device” to terrorism charges for making bomb threats, according to a video released last week by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

“Whether these are real threats from those who intend to do harm or the pranks of kids trying to get a day off, these are real crimes with real consequences,” Nessel said in a statement accompanying the video.

Vitti said the district was able to identify most of the individuals behind social media threats over the past school year using cybersecurity tools. “Almost all of them were removed from the individual school, it was recommended to expel them from the district, which is about a year, and also most of them were arrested,” he said.

Vitti’s call to action for parents: Monitor children’s social media use.

“You have to monitor your kids’ phones,” he said. “A father is an adult, not a child. Having a phone is not a right, it’s a privilege.”

On a Detroit Board of Police Commissioners meeting Last week, Police Chief James White emphasized the seriousness of online threats. The Detroit Police Department regularly works with DPSCD Public Safety Officers on school lockdowns and threat investigations.

“When we see it, we can’t take it lightly,” White said. “It can haunt (kids) for the rest of their lives, and they can completely change the trajectory of an otherwise successful life with one stupid Facebook post.”

Given a search warrant, police departments can request access to social media users’ information before making an arrest, White said. White recommended that the city’s police commission hold a forum to educate students about the real risks of posting threats online.

Students said school officials need to do more than deal with threats to reassure students.

“I don’t think they can really stop a student from making threats,” said Amira Jones, a sophomore at Cass Tech. “But I think (schools) need to work on their security, like using metal detectors instead of just letting people walk through them. They really need to pay attention to what’s going on.”

Amira said that from her classroom on the sixth floor of the building, she wondered how she would be able to get out of the school if something happened.

“I think what worries me the most is that I don’t know if it’s real or not,” Amira said. “I like to know if something is actually going to happen or not. And I think the ignorance made me wonder.”

Others wanted school officials to acknowledge the students’ fears.

“With so many students feeling unsafe, we just had to take the day off for everyone’s safety and peace of mind,” said Macchia, a Cass Tech senior.

Some of her classmates used their class’s group chat to exchange messages, periodically warning others to “be careful” and “watch your back.” When word got out among Cass Tech students that both Ferndale Middle and High Schools were closedthis only increased the anxiety.

“I was really nervous,” Macchia said. “I couldn’t even concentrate on my schoolwork, so there was no point in being there.”

Last week, there was an increased police presence at schools that were the target of threats on social media.

Vicki Hooks Green, an English teacher at Cass Tech, said that given the increased security, she is not personally concerned about the threat of social media at her school.

“I think threats should be taken seriously, as children should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for this, but I don’t think we should take it seriously to the point of being afraid,” – Green said.

But she is concerned about the time he takes up in the classroom. Even “if five or six kids don’t come because of the threat,” she said, that means “I have to accept those kids and whatever they’re missing.”

Ethan Bakuli is a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter covering the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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