HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - As school safety stays on our minds, Alabama school superintendents have been noticing that there thankfully haven't many actual threats to schools. But the rumor mill is hard at work and that has caused confusion and fear in many areas.
Part of it has to do with the immediacy of social media, observed Eric Mackey, Executive Director of School Superintendents of Alabama, which is a leadership group for school system administration. Mackey often advises superintendents across the state and keeps an eye on the pulse of what's affecting school districts. He said it can be difficult to deal with rumors spreading online while district leaders work to figure out the facts.
"There's really been a spike in rumors of violence, but not a lot of direct, actual threats of violence," he noted.
Mackey said when threats are more direct, law enforcement can get right to work. School systems will work alongside them to mitigate any potential for danger. Even in North Alabama, we have seen a student charged with terroristic threatening. Mackey states that it is important for districts to act quickly in any of these situations.
But the rumors muddy the water. He lays the problem out like this:
"One of the problems is that people post things that are either rumors, or things that are untrue, or because they're mad," he explained. "After a cooling-off period, they regret these posts. By then, it's too late." He continued, "How do you get ahead of that curve and let the public know we are addressing this... but at the same time, not over-react to every rumor?"
Mackey's advice to school leaders is to be proactive and let people know they're aware of rumors or threats.
"Address it, whether it's on social media or another platform. Let them know we've looked into it, it's not true," he advised.
But many factors can make it difficult to track down what's real. Snapchat, a popular app, has been in the news in Huntsville recently when a student made a post that led to discipline last semester. Mackey said Snapchat can be tough platform for school officials to use to follow-up on threat concerns.
"It's probably the most popular social platform for high school students, but it's the most difficult one to follow," he explained, because posts disappear after a period of time.
We asked Mackey about social media monitoring. Should districts try to monitor students' posts? Huntsville City Schools did some of this in years past when students had a history of bad behavior. He said that can be difficult to do, and SSA doesn't have a public position on the issue.
But Mackey did share this: get some help from the inside.
"Just remind students that if they see a post that looks threatening, they need to report that to an adult," he advised.
Overall, Mackey advises school system leaders to pay attention to social media and the latest apps students are using.
"Be proactive. Have a social media presence. Understand social media," he said. "Over the next 5 years, social media is going to transform more. This is not going to get easier. It's going to get more difficult."