As the district works to improve the physical safety of its schools, it must also tackle threats made by students on social media.
Mike Andreas has almost grown accustomed to sleepless nights in the past year.
As director of safety, security and emergency management for Sarasota County Schools, he has worked through the night several times in the 2017-2018 school year with law enforcement and school officials to track down social media threats on schools.
“Internet threats that we see today in text messaging and Snapchatting… in my mind, it is the modern-day equivalent to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater, because it’s that level of response,” Andreas said.
Once someone is notified about these posts online, usually in the evening hours, it triggers a coordinated response from Andreas, law enforcement, an analyst from the safety and security department and officials from the school in question to find out if the threat is credible or a joke.
“We take every threat with the seriousness of a heart attack,” Andreas said. “There have been nights I haven’t slept in an effort to track these down.”
Those sleepless nights are becoming more common, Andreas said. In the current school year, he and his team have dealt with an estimated eight to 10 threats that came in via social media — a number that’s up from past years.
Brian Dorn, assistant principal at Riverview High School, said the two social media threats that have been made this year at his school are uncommon.
In November at Riverview High, a student posted a photo of a gun on the social media platform Snapchat with the caption “School gunna be lit tomorrow.” In January, a student posted a video on Snapchat that showed the butt of a gun and indicated a potential threat to campus.
“That’s how kids express themselves today — online, in social media — so it’s not surprising to me that we’re seeing more of these as kids become ingrained in social media,” Andreas said.
If a threat like this is deemed credible, or if the student can’t be located for questioning, the school will likely go into a lockdown or a heightened state of security. In a lockdown, there is no instruction happening. Students and teachers are away from doors and windows and all the lights are off. No one leaves or enters campus.
In a heightened state of security, doors are locked and students aren’t allowed to move through campus unless escorted by an adult. But classes are still in session.
According to Andreas, there have been seven lockdowns or instances where security has been heightened at schools in the district. While not all of them involved social media threats, they all involved guns or the threat of guns on campus.
The solution, according to Andreas and Dorn, lies partly in the education of students and parents.
At Riverview, freshman students go through a transition course, which educates them about the dangers of social media, the impact of a digital footprint and the magnitude of consequences associated with making posts that may threaten violence. Additionally, Dorn is working with parents to create a campaign to inform parents how they can talk to their children about social media and being responsible online, and Andreas is working on a larger messaging strategy for the district.
On top of that, Andreas believes the serious response that each threat prompts will act as a signal to students that there will be consequences to the action.
“There’s going to be a very high likelihood of charges, and hopefully that will cut back on the propensity,” he said.
As the district embarks on a $21 million endeavor to improve the physical security at each school in the district by implementing single points of entry, fencing, even updating landscaping at some schools, Andreas calls this response to social media threats part of the overall solution.
“In Sarasota County we are creating what we call a system of safety and security,” Andreas said, likening the system to an automobile that’s been taken apart. If you put all the parts in a room, you don’t have a car. You only get a functioning automobile when the parts fit together, you turn the key and you get a series of actions and movements that make it go. The same goes for making a school safe.
In the meantime, parents and students should keep reporting threats they see online, and the district and law enforcement will keep investigating them.
“We really need our students and our families to go by the old neighborhood model of ‘if you see something, say something,’” Dorn said. “That’s how we all stay safe.”