Anyone who has students attending Westfield High School no doubt heard about the issues that took place over October 12 and 13, 2017. The problem is that very few people heard the correct story, or for one reason or another chose an incorrect version of events over one based more in fact. For those unfamiliar with the events of October 12 and 13 this is what happened:
Early on Thursday morning, October 12, a student at Westfield High School was overheard in a classroom making a “threat”. A short time later this was made known to the school administration through the online anonymous tip line. The word “threat” is put in quotation marks because as soon as this information was brought to the administration, school officials and the Westfield Police determined immediately that although an inappropriate statement was made by a student, it was in no way a credible theat. The student was addressed by the staff and removed from the school. This happened so quickly there was no need for a lock down or even a shelter in place. Enter Social Media.
In between the short period that this “threat” was made and the time it was reported to school officials, several posts were put on social media discussing the shooting that would take place at the high school. As a result of this, students began voicing concerns and parents began to call the school. A robocall was made to parents explaining that there had been in incident at the school that was determined to be a non-issue and had been dealt with. No students were in any danger. This seemed to make the issue worse when social media exploded again with people asking what was going on and sharing misinformation that was being relayed by students at the school. This continued throughout the day but Thursday ended with no incidents.
Unfortunately social media does not follow the school clock. After school and throughout the evening, new versions of the original “threat” came in and began referencing the fact that Friday was “Friday the 13th”. Each new complaint was investigated and each was found to be less credible than the last. As a result of so many complaints and new versions of supposed threats, police and school officials worked well into Thursday night and began again early Friday morning assessing each new allegation. Each time they came to the same conclusion that there was no credible threat.
Social Media didn’t relent. Reports of increased police presence were shared, descriptions of officers clearing the halls in body armor circulated the forums, and then local news stations picked up the story. Much like a horrible twist on the old “telephone” game, it seemed each version of the “threat” got worse with each new telling. Along with that, each version of police and administrative response became more intense.
There was an increased police presence at the High School on Friday. The simplest reason is that each “threat” was, and has to be, taken seriously. With each new version of a threat, more police were needed to investigate. Students saw police wearing body armor. Every police officer in the City of Westfield is mandated to wear a bullet proof vest, also known as body armor, while they are on duty. So yes, there was an increased police presence at the high school, and every officer was wearing body armor. This was all in response to the social media frenzy.
Another product of this social media frenzy was that many students left the school or were picked up by parents. Another robocall was sent to parents, again, assuring them that there was no danger at the school.
Then the senior class picture was canceled. Rumors spread that the gathering of students for the picture was the target so naturally it spread on social media that the picture had been cancelled for safety reasons. The class picture was canceled because so many seniors went home that the picture would not have been representative of the class. Social media wins again.
In today’s world, although unfortunate, every allegation of a threat to the safety of our students must be taken seriously. The police department and school department investigate and evaluate every complaint that comes in alleging a threat of force. The police department trains regularly on best practices involved in handling a situation should school violence erupt. The administration, teachers, staff and students drill with the police to practice for such an occasion. Although anything can happen, these same school officials and police officers are also trained to evaluate the credibility of threats and to make determinations on a best course of action. Allowing the social media machine to run rampant makes the job of the police and school officials in these situations much more difficult. It also draws police resources away from other tasks.
Every parent fears for their child’s safety when there is a question of school violence. And although picking up a student from school may be the best option in some circumstances, it brings even more unknowns into an already stressful situation. Police and school staff are forced to deal with not only concerned students, but concerned parents as well. This added activity at the school draws attention away from the original threat which is where police and administrators should be concentrating.
There will never be two situations exactly the same and we are glad that there will not be another “Friday the 13th” until April, but it’s hard not to think about how this entire situation would have changed had cell phones and social media not been a factor. Please find out as many facts as you can before drawing conclusions and allow the police and school officials do their jobs. Take seriously the word of police and school officials when they tell you your children are not in any danger. If they are in danger, they will tell you that too while they do everything in their power to keep your loved ones out of harm’s way.