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Jitters persist: Recent social media posts increase fears, burden law enforcement

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WOODBURY — Authorities have determined that two juveniles who posted alleged shooting threats last week had neither the intent nor the means to carry them out.

The juveniles, who attended East Ridge High School, have been arrested and charges could be pending. They were identified after District 833 schools alerted Woodbury Police, who consulted with the FBI.

It's unclear if the posts were related to the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where authorities allege a former student named Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people with an assault-style rifle.

What is undeniable, however, is that the tragedy has made people more alert to social media chatter — especially since details emerged that Cruz hinted at his impending rampage on social media.

The Woodbury incidents serve as the latest example of the often pernicious power of social media to spread rumors, create fear and burden law enforcement and school authorities, who must take every threat seriously.

The ability of one Facebook or Instagram troll to rattle a community presents a challenge. Parents fret. Students gossip. School administrators and police scramble to locate the source and the seriousness of the threat.

"As with anything, the number one priority is where is the individual located, can we make contact," Woodbury Public Safety spokesperson Michelle Okada said. "We make an initial assessment: do they have the means and the intent to carry these perceived threats?"

On Feb. 20, acting on a tip from a District 833 school resource officer, authorities discovered an Instagram post with song lyrics that referenced a school shooting. On Feb. 23, investigators discovered a post by another East Ridge Student on Snapchat that read "Just wanted to remind you that East Ridge is going to be shot up Monday." A screenshot of the post was shared on Facebook, prompting some Facebook users to wonder if they should keep their children home from school that Monday.

The juveniles were not associated with each other and appeared to have made their respective posts separately, Okada said.

"In evaluating those, there was nothing specifically directed at East Ridge," Okada said. "They're not from the same friend group. One is not piggybacking on the other."

Other school districts in Minnesota also dealt with alleged social media shooting threats last week. Police in St. Francis arrested a 17-year old student Feb. 23 after what they said was a verbal threat against a school. Also last week, schools in Orono and Hill City in Aitkin County went into lockdown after a juvenile allegedly posted a shooting threat on social media. The juvenile was arrested.

The Florida massacre angered and frustrated Cottage Grove Police Sgt. Randy McAlister. In addition to his regular duties as investigator, McAlister is Minnesota's only Certified Threat Manager, a credential he earned through the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals. He teaches the method around the country.

The process was first developed in 2004 as the Safe Schools initiative, a study of mass gun violence by the Secret Service and the US Department of Education. It was launched in response to the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School.

In the wake of the Parkland shootings, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has called for legislation that would require threat assessment programs in every K-12 school.

"School districts will throw hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars at physical security measures like surveillance cams and all that kind of stuff," McAlister said. "Those things are important, don't get me wrong. But most school shootings are inside jobs.They're current students. Surveillance cameras and locked doors are not going to prevent them from bringing their guns inside the schools."

Threat assessment professionals focus on detecting the "red flags" that are often overlooked until it's too late. Should they receive a tip that a classmate, co-worker or spouse is exhibiting worrisome or threatening behavior, they'll evaluate that person's risk for "targeted," or premeditated violence.

"Once you have information and you believe that person's at risk for doing violence, you have to take steps to mitigate that," McAlister said.

Social media has made law enforcement's job harder, McAlister said. In most cases, school shooters have made their intentions known to others on social media, a phenomenon known as leakage. Actors almost never threaten a school directly, he said.

"Anytime you get leakage you have to investigate," McAlister said. "You just can't blow them off. I think (social media) increases the amount of threats that kids do. I think it increases people's sensitivity to threats."

Damien Nelson, safety and security manager for District 833, said they review their crisis policy at the start of every school year but that, "We're always looking at what's happening out there and what can we change and can we modify what we do as information comes through."

"There's different ways that threats manifest themselves," Nelson said. "There's shootings related to bullying, depression and suicidal ideation. There are ... social media postings where they're posing with guns ... There's so much theory and ideas around the working of emergency management. There's no single one-size-fits-all. You've got to understand the fluidity and flexibility of things.

"It's quite a challenge."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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