Educators Ask Government to Intervene Over Social Media's Lack of Action On School Threats

Amid rising concerns over viral TikTok posts making threats to schools across the country, some education officials are asking for the government to step in and provide assistance.

Posts have been made alleging threats of shootings and bombings at schools across the country in a recent trend of the posts following the November 30 shooting in Oxford, Michigan, in which four students were killed.

Several school districts canceled classes on Friday or closed portions of the buildings, and several districts in the Houston area didn't allow middle school and high school students to bring backpacks to school, although they had not received direct credible threats, according to the Associated Press.

The districts said they took the actions out of "an abundance of caution" to protect students as the unconfirmed threats add to the anxiety educators are already dealing with the pandemic.

Vickie Cartwright, interim superintendent in Broward County, Florida, said the federal government should take action to protect schools if social media companies won't.

"I'm asking for our federal government at this point in time to intervene. We need help. I cannot fathom that any other country would allow this type of attack to be occurring on their education system," she said, according to AP.

TikTok spokesperson Hilary McQuaide told AP that the social media platform has deleted posts that spread "misinformation that is generally sparking alarming warnings," but the company has not found posts that directly threaten school districts or encourage violent acts.

Dozens of schools across the country have shifted to remote learning in recent weeks because of similar threats since the deadly shooting in Michigan.

School Shootings, TikTok, Michigan, Florida
School officials around the country stepped up security on Friday in response to social media posts warning of violence. The anonymous threats on TikTok had many educators on edge because they are circulating in the aftermath of the deadly school shooting in Oxford, Michigan. Above, handwritten messages are left at the memorial site outside Oxford High School on December 7, 2021. Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP File

In a tweet, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it did not "have any information indicating any specific, credible threats to schools but recommends communities remain alert."

"We are removing the alarmist warnings," McQuaide said. "Those are misinformation."

McQuaide said the company began hearing the rumors late Wednesday and has been working with law enforcement agencies to try to get to the bottom of them.

The post most widely associated with Friday's fears is "not really a threat, it's just saying they are hearing this thing is happening," said Justin Patchin, a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

How to respond to that presents a dilemma both to TikTok and educators, especially since many of the previous panics about TikTok challenges have proven to be bogus and acknowledging them can make them more influential.

"It definitely puts schools in a tough spot," said Patchin, whose center has worked with TikTok and other social media companies in the past to research online bullying. "There are these potential threats they can't ignore but they also can't shut down schools every time someone posts a generalized threat on social media."

In Newtown, Connecticut, all schools were open on Friday, with an increased police presence. District schools had switched to remote learning Tuesday, the ninth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, due in part to threats that schools elsewhere were receiving in the aftermath of the Michigan shooting.

In Michigan, West Bloomfield schools went remote for the entire week after a social media threat prompted a lockdown on Monday. The 14-year-old daughter of Julia Anderson Pulver texted her saying it was probably nothing but "there's still a little voice in the back of my head saying you're gonna die."

"I was very pleased they wanted to ensure the mental health of our students and teachers and staff because they didn't want us to come back and then go through a similar lockdown because a new threat came in and repeatedly traumatize everyone," Pulver said.

As her 15-year-old son studied for his big algebra test, word of vague threats of school violence on TikTok prompted Kelley Swiney to quiz the freshman about other calculations: What's your fastest exit from that classroom? Where would you run? Do you feel safe going to school Friday?

Swiney, a mom of three school-age boys in Upper Arlington, Ohio, said she'd had a similar conversation with him and her middle son, a sixth-grader, after the recent school shooting in Michigan. She asked them to take a few seconds in each classroom they enter to think about where they could hide and how they could get out.

She told her son that if he felt truly unsafe—not just trying to skip the test or the last day before holiday break—he could stay home Friday, even if it meant a failing grade.

"I think it's really pretty depressing that we live in a world where I have to have that conversation with my child," Swiney said.

On Friday morning, he felt comfortable enough to head to school for the exam, and by midday he was safely back home.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.