School-shooting threats on TikTok prompt closures in US

The threats give a date – December 17 – leading schools in Michigan, Washington and elsewhere to temporarily keep kids home.

TikTok logo
TikTok, owned by ByteDance Ltd, is among several social media companies that have faced criticism for spreading harmful videos, particularly among kids [File: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg]

A wave of school-shooting threats circulating on TikTok and other social media prompted some U.S. schools to close Friday and others to bolster their police presence.

Generally, the threats don’t name specific schools and local and federal authorities have said many lack credibility. Still, the threats give a date — Dec. 17 — leading schools in Michigan, Washington and elsewhere to temporarily keep kids home. Many videos show a text warning of a bombing or shooting on Friday, without schools, districts or even states listed.

There have been nine school shootings and 235 so-called nonactive shooter incidents this year, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, and districts and law enforcement say they take each warning seriously.

‘No Known Threats’

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said that while there are “no known specific threats,” he has spoken about the viral posts with the state’s attorney general and security officials. “We will work closely with law enforcement to monitor the situation and remain prepared,” Murphy said on Twitter.

Oxford Community Schools in Michigan, where a boy killed four students in late November, closed all buildings due to a new shooting threat. Seattle police opened investigations into two schools Wednesday morning and closed one after staff alerted authorities to social-media posts, according to a press release.

Tooele County, Utah, officials said the trend originated on TikTok as a way for students to skip school. They said it spread to other internet platforms like Instagram and Facebook “and has morphed into something much more disturbing,” in a statement Wednesday.

Schools in the New York City metro area have also been affected. Pelham Public Schools, in Westchester County, New York, shifted classes online Friday after a threat against the high school on Snapchat.

In Glenview, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, police deemed shooting and bomb threats circulating on social media not credible, according to a news release on the department’s Facebook page.

Glenview School District 34 is operating normally, with more police than normal, said Cathy Kedjidjian, director of communications and strategic planning. “We were specifically made aware of this from the Glenview Police Department, who shared some information from the Illinois State Police,” she said.

Ashley Gonzalez, police chief for the Austin Independent School District in Texas, sent a letter to the community alerting of a “non-specific” shooting threat on Dec. 17.

“These threats in no way mention any Austin ISD school and are believed to be part of a nationwide trend,” Gonzalez said, who was planning to bolster security nonetheless. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a trend of reposting messages that have no relation to our city, area or schools and many of the threats end up being hoaxes.”

Problematic Content

TikTok, owned by ByteDance Ltd., is among several social media companies that have been criticized for spreading harmful videos, particularly among kids. This year, teachers called on the company to intervene in a so-called TikTok challenge to slap their teachers.

“This is not the first disturbing ‘challenge’ targeting students, educators, and their public schools to circulate on TikTok,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, a union representing 3 million educators. “These types of threats and social media trends are very disturbing and in no way amusing.”

This week, TikTok said it would tweak its algorithm to reduce problematic content. The tech company, whose app has surpassed 1 billion users, also said it was working with law enforcement to address the shooting threats.

“We handle even rumored threats with utmost seriousness, which is why we’re working with law enforcement to look into warnings about potential violence at schools,” the company said in a statement.

Source: Bloomberg