News Column

Social Media Rumor Stirs Panic

Dec 21, 2012

Charlene Vandini and Travis Whitehead

social media

Blame it on anxiety following the Connecticut school shooting, or the purported Mayan calendar end-of-the-world legend, exacerbated by the immediacy of misinformation spread on social media.

On Thursday, two local school districts and police departments responded to rumors of school violence.

Police in Harlingen and San Benito on Thursday increased their on-campus presence as well as patrols around schools in response to a social media rumor of school violence that police said was "blown out of proportion."

Assistant Harlingen Police Chief Stephen Mayer said police heard about the rumor that originated on a Facebook page and "traced it all the way back" to a San Benito school student.

The same rumor was reported to police by a La Feria parent, he said.

Mayer said no one was arrested, and explained that the rumor started as a concern to advise students and parents to be careful, and then it escalated into reports of possible threats that a school would be targeted, or a gun taken to a school or there would be another shooting.

"He thought he was doing a good deed," Mayer said of the original Facebook posting. The original posting was "liked" about 100 times and then forwarded.

Mayer said the message "was blown out of proportion," but police took it seriously and investigated.

In San Benito, concerned parents and students contacted the school district after seeing the posting by a student who said she overheard someone last week talking about bringing a gun to school, San Benito school Superintendent Antonio Limon said. She didn't post the message until Wednesday night.

"My understanding is the student claims she heard it but never turned around to see who said it, and she was the only one that heard it," Limon said. "There was no other witness other than her to have heard it."

Meanwhile, the entire district went on heightened alert, Limon said.

He and the police chief patrolled different campuses Thursday morning, and found nothing suspicious.

"No incidents were reported," he said. "It was a peaceful day in the San Benito School District."

Mariela Sandoval, who works at Su Clinica Familiar, kept her

sixth- and eighth-grade children home from Harlingen's Vernon Middle School Thursday after her daughter told her about rumors that a student was going to kill people.

"I told my husband that even if it was a rumor, I'd rather be safe than sorry," Sandoval said.

Her daughter told her:

"Today there was going to be a lot of shooting at both high schools. A student said if the world was going to end Friday he was going to kill as many people as he could on Thursday."

Sandoval said her daughter told her the message was "all over Facebook" and students were talking about it at school.

Harlingen police had several calls from parents on Thursday morning, asking about the purported threat, police Commander Miryam Anderson said.

Harlingen police doubled the number of officers assigned to the district's two high schools, Anderson said. Two officers normally are assigned to each high school campus, but two additional officers were assigned Thursday.

In addition, patrol officers were instructed to make more frequent perimeter checks at all schools, she said.

Rumors and threats aren't limited to the Rio Grande Valley, Anderson said. Schools all over the nation have had similar rumors following the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Harlingen school district spokesman Shane Strubhart added the "end-of-the-world" scenario that some believe is supposed to occur today contributed to the school violence rumors.

Strubhart said, "If you check other districts around the country, you'll see this whole end-of-the-world thing is creating panic in some people."

The Harlingen school district offices also received phone calls about rumored school violence.

"The gun rumor is not true," he said. "There are lots of rumors going around. Please help us by asking people for sources or proof of information before they make claims and scare people."

Mayer said police want to reassure the public that law enforcement will investigate these rumors.

"We want parents to feel secure," he said.

Harlingen school Superintendent Steve Flores said the district takes threats seriously.

"It is important to communicate with your child's school or the district's administration regarding any concerns or potential threats," he said. "This allows us to take necessary action if warranted. Let us be mindful that schools continue to be one of the safest environments for our children."

Source: (c)2012 Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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