The day after a horrific school shooting in Florida, a middle-school student in the Port Byron Central School District posted something on social media that caused enough concern that the district asked police to investigate.
A day after that, Superintendent Neil O'Brien said that there had been "no direct threat to the school or students." But later the same day, New York State Police arrested a 12-year-old for allegedly threatening to harm other students.
To be clear, both O'Brien and the police said that there was never a risk that the threat could be carried out and that no students had been in any danger. O'Brien said he tried to dispel rumors circulating on the internet Friday morning, but there has been no further word from the school district to allay the concerns of parents in light of a student being charged with a felony for making a "terroristic threat."
A similar thing happened in Auburn Friday when students were overheard talking about an alleged threat against Auburn Junior High School. In that case, after determining that the rumors were unsubstantiated, an automated phone call was sent out districtwide explaining the circumstances. The school district then followed up with a public statement reminding students and parents that they should report anything they might hear about violence or threats, including anything that "just does not feel right."
Communication around these types of incidents is something all schools need to take seriously. At a time when concerns about school violence are especially heightened — combined with the power of social media to spread misinformation — all districts need to have procedures in place to be proactive about communicating with the community regarding incidents like these, not reactive to rumors and complaints.
Port Byron missed its opportunity to get ahead of the rumors and take control of the conversation, but there is time to address the school community before classes begin again on Monday.
Because the privacy of children must be protected, parents shouldn't expect to hear specific details about any particular student facing disciplinary action. But what the school district can — and should — do is inform the community about the police investigations that took place last week and what is being done to keep buildings secure and students and faculty safe.
The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Rob Forcey, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.