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Schools in multiple states step up security in response to vague threats on TikTok

TikTok said Friday it had not found content promoting violence at schools but found videos discussing the rumor and warning others to stay safe.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some parents kept their children home, police stepped up patrols and educators tightened security protocols Friday in response to viral TikTok posts alluding to unconfirmed threats of violence that raised anxiety levels at schools nationwide.

Vickie Cartwright, the interim superintendent of schools in Broward County, Florida, one of the nation’s largest school districts, said the posts on TikTok represent an attack on the American education system.

“We are under attack by a social media platform that will not intervene when it is necessary,” she said. “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.

With stress levels already soaring from the effects of the pandemic and a rash of hoax threats following a deadly school shooting in Michigan on Nov. 30, districts said they were taking precautions out of an abundance of caution.

The posts circulating online said schools would face shooting and bomb threats Friday. Law enforcement agencies said there did not appear to be a credible threat, but several districts opted to cancel classes for the day including Carson City, Nevada; Polk County, Georgia; and several Pittsburgh-area school systems.

Some other districts increased security staffing levels and limited where students could go inside school buildings. More than a half dozen school districts in the Houston area told middle and high school students to leave their backpacks at home Friday in response to the TikTok posts, though none of the districts had received credible threats, officials said.

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."

TikTok has said it is working with law enforcement to look into the warnings. In Twitter posts on Friday, the company said it had not found content promoting violence at schools but found videos discussing the rumor and warning others to stay safe.

“Local authorities, the FBI, and DHS have confirmed there’s no credible threat, so we’re working to remove alarmist warnings that violate our misinformation policy,” the company said.

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.”

Educators have been on edge in many places since the deadly shooting in Michigan as copycat threats have led to isolated cases of schools switching to remote learning over the last several weeks.

In Newtown, Connecticut, all schools were open 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.

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.

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