School districts across the country issued warnings, increased security and canceled classes Friday in response to vague, anonymous shooting and bomb threats that officials say were made on TikTok but are not considered credible.
However, TikTok said it has found no evidence of threats originating on its platform and is working to remove videos discussing the rumor.
Schools in Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Montana, New York and Pennsylvania increased their police presence Friday due to the alleged threats while schools in California, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas closed for the day.
“It’s just scary to feel like there’s nowhere where you can leave your kids,” said Trisha Masterson, a mother of five from Wauconda, Illinois. “I’d always rather be safe and regret being too safe than not. What happens if I send them and something happens?”
On Thursday, Masterson started getting emails from her children’s schools. The first one came from her eldest daughter’s high school, which sent two emails about the threats reported to have been made on TikTok. The second email said the notification wasn’t intended to alarm parents. None of the threats were specific to their school district.
Read more:What we know about TikTok’s response
Masterson said she discussed the alleged threats with her children, ages 10 to 14, and let them decide if they wanted to go to school Friday. All five decided to attend, which she said was difficult for her.
“They’re already more anxious because of how much their learning experience has changed during the pandemic,” she told USA TODAY. “And now we’re telling them also, you can’t even feel safe here anymore.”
Schools have been experiencing an uptick in social media threats of violence since September, but the threats are typically local or regional, not nationwide, said Kenneth Trump with National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland, Ohio-based consulting firm.
The threats posted on TikTok come a little more than two weeks after a 15-year-old sophomore shot and killed 4 fellow students at Oxford High School in Michigan — a typical amount of time before experts say copycat threats begin after a high-profile shooting. An array of copycat threats to other schools have already resulted in dozens of student arrests.
There have been 32 shootings on school campuses in 2021, according to Education Week, which tracks such incidents that result in firearm-related injuries or deaths.
The threats, in addition to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, have increased anxiety among parents, students and educators, he said.
When a threat is unfounded, he recommended schools stay open under heightened security and supervision. He said he’s concerned that school leaders are making a “knee-jerk reaction” to close schools completely.
“If you don’t think the threat is credible, why are you closing?” he said. “Rumors, misinformation, fear and anxiety can become a greater problem than the threat you deem to be not credible.”
TikTok said in a statement it handles “even rumored threats with utmost seriousness.”
“We’ve exhaustively searched for content that promotes violence at schools today, but have still found nothing. What we find are videos discussing this rumor and warning others to stay safe,” the statement posted to Twitter said. “Local authorities, the FBI, and DHS have confirmed there’s no credible threat, so we’re working to remove alarmist warnings that violate our misinformation policy. If we did find promotion of violence on our platform, we’d remove and report it to law enforcement.”
“Media reports have been widespread and based on rumors rather than facts, and we are deeply concerned that the proliferation of local media reports on an alleged trend that has not been found on the platform could end up inspiring real world harm,” the statement continued.
What is the TikTok threat against schools and how are schools responding?
Officials say most of the threats are generic, but at least one district in Minnesota said law enforcement determined based on interviews that it was “specifically identified in a TikTok post related to this threat,” but “the origins of this threat remain unknown.”
School officials, law enforcement and local leaders have assured parents they are monitoring the situation, but the threats are not credible.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Thursday there were “no known specific threats” against schools.
Los Angeles Unified School District posted a statement on Twitter saying it didn’t believe the schools were in danger but it takes the threats seriously.
Illinois administrators in Oak Park and River Forest released a message to parents saying they were “aware of a nationwide viral TikTok trend about ‘school shooting and bomb threats for every school in the USA even elementary'” on Friday.
“We are writing to inform you and not alarm you,” officials said, saying police would increase their presence at schools “out of an abundance of caution.”
In the Houston area, Fort Bend Independent School District asked middle and high school students to leave their backpacks at home Friday “out of an abundance of caution.”
And in northern California, Gilroy police said they had found threats on social media not to be credible, but school officials at Gilroy High School postponed final exams scheduled for Friday to January. In July 2019, a gunman opened fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival and killed three people.
“Making the decision to cancel classes tomorrow has not been an easy one,” Principal Greg Kapaku said in a message to parents.
COVID isolation or copycats? What’s behind the school threats
A lot has changed for students over the last few years. Their daily lives, like all of us, were disrupted. But, experts say, the sudden return to schools has allowed educators to see the damage done over the pandemic.
More disruptive behavior, failing grades, outbursts. The reasons behind the TikTok trend and threats could be multifaceted, said Dr. Amy Klinger, a co-founder the Educator’s School Safety Network — an organization dedicated to both tracking school threats and training schools how to handle them. The organization has paused its data tracking of threats until 2022 due to remote learning.
Klinger noted the trauma and isolation many students have felt over the pandemic and the ripple effects to mental health combined with the typical reasons for such threats — copycat threats after the high-profile shooting in a Michigan school, students being childish and not realizing the dangers of such issues — might be to blame.
But, the pandemic brought changes for schools that allow them to switch to remote learning easily, meaning the typical disruptions of closing a school doesn’t always have to apply.
That’s a double-edged sword, Klinger noted.
Remote learning could be spurring some of these behaviors and defaulting back to that could just worsen the issue. Plus, students behind such threats could feel emboldened if schools shutter each time they make a public threat.
“We are unintentionally, in many ways, creating this endless loop, this cycle of threat upon threat upon threat,” Klinger said. “It’s really problematic and schools are in a tough position.”
Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler, said the burst of threats is typical about two weeks after a high-profile shooting, like the Michigan high school attack. She noted that while COVID may be contributing to these behaviors, the copycat threats — a phenomenon called the contagion effect — has long been an issue for law enforcement.
“It’s something that we’ve seen for the last 20 years,” she said of copycat threats. “But now you’ve got other factors here as well with TikTok, which didn’t exist 25 years ago, and you’ve got COVID, which left people constrained to virtual classrooms. It’s hard.”
What should students and parents do?
Trump, with National School Safety and Security Services, urged parents to talk with their children about what information they’re seeing online and alert school officials and law enforcement about potential threats. He said parents as well as kids should look for information from credible sources, not rely on “social media rumor and misinformation.”
Trump said parents should also warn kids against sharing unconfirmed information, as it may unintentionally contribute to anxiety and stress.
“A lot of times kids will have good intentions,” he said. “If you have all these young people spreading the same thing at the same time, it just exponentially increases the distribution of the threats.”
Parents should also give their children context about the threats by explaining what they and educators are doing to keep students safe, “so that there’s some reassurances, psychologically, (but) not giving a false sense of security,” he said. “I often encourage parents to have candid conversations.”
Trump also said schools need to be proactive by creating threat assessment teams, training and protocols, and a crisis communication plan to quickly disseminate information to parents before an incident occurs.
Klinger agreed that schools should do more in preparing for threats after about a two-year hiatus. She noted the availability of free safety training offered by the Educator’s School Safety Network that’s been used by parents, teachers and broadly across schools.
The seminar aims to train and inform on best practices for school safety and violence prevention after the pandemic, along with warning signs and intervention tactics for students who might need help readjusting to the classroom afterwards.
Arrests linked to ‘devious licks’ TikTok trend
In the fall, students across the U.S. were arrested after participating in the “devious licks” trend, which involved stealing or vandalizing school property. Another list circulating online encouraged students to “smack a staff member,” “mess up school signs,” or “flip off the front office,” among other actions that could potentially create chaos at schools.
‘Devious licks’ on TikTok:TikTok-inspired violence has already-demoralized educators increasingly worried
Meanwhile, a few students in California, Florida and Texas were arrested earlier this week for allegedly making threats and bringing weapons to school, according to local media reports, but officials have not said those arrests are connected to the reported TikTok threats.
The rumored threats have outraged educators around the country who are already overwhelmed with the chaos of teaching during a pandemic.
“Whether done as a joke or with malicious intent, it’s unacceptable,” said officials with the Iowa State Education Association, the Iowa Association of School Boards and School Administrators of Iowa in a joint statement.
Contributing: The Associated Press