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Law enforcement, schools downplay unconfirmed TikTok shooting threats that prompted tighter campus security

Some schools are on heightened alert after warnings of violence weeks after a school shooting in Oxford, Mich. (Jake May/AP)
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At least a dozen school districts around the United States are on alert after posts on social media warned of violence in classrooms Friday. But law enforcement officials say the vague threats are not credible, and one of the nation’s largest school districts said it was looking forward to seeing students in the morning.

The “school shooting copycat threats” were spread on TikTok, according to several police departments and media reports, which also noted the presence of posts on Facebook and Snapchat. But TikTok says there is no evidence that such posts widely circulated on its platform. Threats of violence in schools on Friday could not be found on TikTok late Thursday, though there were many videos urging students to avoid school or to take precautions.

The latest threats follow a deadly school shooting in Oxford, Mich., and evacuations at several U.S. universities following reports of bombs that officials later said were not credible. The recent incidents have left many parents, students and educators on edge, but experts cautioned against overreacting to warnings that circulated on a platform popular with teens.

Casey Fiesler, an information science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said she did not want to downplay any potential menace, but it was possible that students who had noticed increased fear of school violence among their peers were hoping to get attention.

TikTok has moderators and guidelines that prohibit posts promoting or threatening violence, but Fiesler said such rules could be circumvented by savvy users. And she noted that TikTok’s accessibility — its algorithm means posts from people with relatively small followings on the platform have a “much higher” chance of being widely circulated — allows for “content that would otherwise maybe not spread as much [to] go viral.”

Closing classrooms is a “double-edged sword,” said Amy Klinger, a school-safety specialist and former public school principal in Ohio, adding that a tough reaction could prompt anxiety and disruption that inspires copycat behavior from other malicious actors.

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Administrators should determine whether any menacing rhetoric is “specific” and “substantive” before imposing measures, she said. “Not all threats are equal.”

Fiesler, the Colorado professor, offered a hypothetical scenario of a student pulling a fire alarm to skip an exam. It could be “the same kind of thing, just at a much larger scale,” she said.

There were sporadic school cancellations around the country, including in Carson City, Nev., and Gladstone, Mich., where a superintendent said a threat that originally appeared to be a way for students to skip school had “morphed into something much more disturbing.” He did not provide more details and a request for comment was not immediately returned.

But for now, many schools have stayed away from the most drastic measures. The superintendent of Haverford Township school district in Pennsylvania, where writing was found on the wall of a local middle school alluding to a possible shooting, said police did not believe students were in immediate danger. Classes will continue, with increased police presence.

“This situation serves as a good example of why it is important to avoid sharing posts online that refer to school safety threats,” wrote Maureen Reusche, the district superintendent, in an email to parents seen by The Washington Post. “Even if they are not credible threats, they can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety … threats, whether serious or not, are a crime and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Baltimore County Public Schools said law enforcement had investigated threats of mass school shootings on Friday, and found them not credible. The school district wrote on Twitter that the threat appeared to have originated in Arizona.

Little Miami Schools in Ohio said it had not received any specific threats, though there would be an increased police presence on campuses Friday. Another school system in Texas told middle and high school students to leave backpacks home for the day “out of an abundance of caution.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wrote on Twitter that his office is working closely with law enforcement, though there were no “known specific threats.”

Renee Bennett, whose two sons attend schools in Little Miami, said her children would not be attending class Friday. “I don’t care if it’s [excused] or not, my kids were not going,” she said. “I could not live with myself If I let [my son] go and something happened.”

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Landon Bennett, 13, had been looking forward to attending the last day of term after missing school earlier this week. But he alerted his mother to the TikTok warnings and said he feels safer not attending on Friday, even after news of more law enforcement on campus.

The Dec. 17 warnings come on the same week as the ninth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which 26 children and educators were killed. Gun-control advocates demanded that TikTok better regulate content posted on its platform, with at least one activist calling on its app to be suspended from mobile app stores.

A TikTok spokesperson said the company investigates reports of potentially harmful social media challenges that appear on its platform and helps users assess potential threats.