In just a few seconds, a student can tap out a short message to send by social media, via text message, or through an email. However, if that message is an alarming threat, angry words that seem threatening, or a menacing meme or photo, those few seconds could lead to a lifetime of consequences for a young person.
And, here’s the thing. A kid doesn’t have to mean it or be able to carry out their threat for it to be a very serious offense. Just like a verbal or written threat, issuing a digital threat— over social media, via text message, or through email— is a federal crime. Even if the threat is a hoax, those who post or send threats can receive up to five years in federal prison, face state or local charges, and have school disciplinary consequences.
“Schools across the nation have become the main targets of hoax threats of violence,” says Chief Wayne Rikard who heads GCPS’ police department. “Even here at home, we have seen an increase in these hoax threats.” In fact, hoax threats in Gwinnett schools more than doubled between 2016-17 and 2017-18 and are on track to increase this school year as well.
In an effort to reverse this trend, GCPS has teamed up with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to launch the agency’s “Think Before You Post” campaign to raise awareness about the consequences of online threats. The anti-threat campaign began in North Carolina last year, and Gwinnett is the first Georgia district to use “Think Before You Post.” A Jan. 3 launch event brought together representatives from GCPS’ School Police, the FBI, and state, county, and city law enforcement agencies.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Chris Hacker says awareness is a key component of the campaign as many students (and their parents) don’t realize the serious consequences of making a hoax threat. The campaign helps ensure that “youth don’t get themselves in trouble and face a federal felony punishable by up to five years in federal prison,” Agent Hacker says.
Chief Rikard notes one reason for the upswing in hoax threats is coverage of high-profile cases, like last year’s school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Tex. Ready access to social media without adult oversight and immaturity also contribute to the problem as high school students, and even younger kids, say things online without thinking through the consequences.
Too often, students don’t understand that their “joke” can create a disruption to the school community and require law enforcement and administrative resources to investigate and resolve the issue. “We take every threat seriously,” says Chief Rikard. “There is a thorough investigation to find the suspect, as well as the motivation behind each threat. This is a huge drain on a police force, as each investigation is time-sensitive and requires extra officers at the school.” In addition, these online threats create fear among students and parents, resulting in high levels of absenteeism and angst. In addition, as the threats are online, they tend to circulate and recirculate long after they have been addressed by school officials.
The new “Think Before You Post” campaign will feature presentations and materials for students, tipsheets and resources for parents about monitoring their child’s social media use, videos promoting good digital citizenship, and frequent tips and reminders on the school district’s social media channels. The Gwinnett campaign also will focus on educating students on the importance of being good digital citizens.
District leaders and law enforcement believe that getting kids to think about the consequences before they post online will lead to better online behavior and a reduction in online hoax threats. The campaign also will encourage students to say something to law enforcement and school officials if they see something disturbing online.
“We often say that we all have a role to play when it comes to keeping our schools safe,” says CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks. “This campaign brings together students, parents, employees, and law enforcement, to raise awareness about the use of social media and specifically that making threats— whether they are real or not— is no joking matter.” He notes that young people will be key players in the campaign. Student ambassadors from every GCPS middle and high school will support the campaign with posts and tweets on the subject aimed at peers on their own social media accounts.
Jared, a senior at Collins Hill HS and student ambassador for the new campaign, says that the partnership with the FBI will help keep schools safer and fellow students out of trouble. “It will definitely get the students more aware of the seriousness of cyberbullying and posting threats,” he says.
Watch for more about this campaign in coming months and, online, learn more about how we keep our schools safe and secure.
Tips from the FBI
Never post or send any hoax threats… by text, via social media, or in an email. Period.
If you are the target of an online threat, alert local law enforcement immediately.
If you see a threat of violence posted on social media, immediately contact law enforcement or your local FBI office. Members of the public can always submit a tip to the FBI at tips.fbi.gov.
Don’t share or forward the threat until law enforcement has had a chance to investigate to avoid spreading misinformation and causing panic.
Families should know that some young people post these threats online as a cry for attention or as a way to get revenge or exert control. Talk to your child about the proper outlet for their stress or other emotions, and explain the importance of responsible social media use and the consequences of posting hoax threats.