January 10, 2022

Schools, law enforcement warn of Dec. 17 school shooting ‘trend’ on TikTok

A vague nationwide threat to schools spreading on TikTok is sparking panic and confusion.

Dec. 16, 2021, 7:28 PM PSTBy Danielle Campoamor

A threat to schools nationwide circulating on TikTok has caused confusion and panic among parents and school administrators across the country; some schools are closing for the day, others are increasing their police presence and some parents are keeping their children home.

The vague threat, with origins that are unclear, features text singling out Friday, Dec. 17, and warns of school shootings and other violence on that day.

No specific schools or locations are mentioned in these viral threats, and law enforcement officials in several school districts across the country have said they have not found any credible threats to specific schools. Still, schools and local police departments are issuing statements and some are increasing the amount of police at schools to calm the public, as some parents opt to keep their children home.

The Naugatuck Police Department in Connecticut says in a written statement posted on Facebook that it will increase its presence and patrols at local schools. The statement cites an “uptick in unrelated threats at schools in the region,” and says that while there has been no threat against Naugatuck schools specifically, “The public can anticipate our presence to increase the community’s sense of safety during the coming school days.”

Parents in the Iowa City Community School District received a statement from superintendent Matt Degner, describing the anonymous nationwide threats and reassuring worried parents.

“We have partnered with local law enforcement to vigilantly investigate whether there are any local connections to these social media posts,” Degner wrote in a email obtained by TODAY Parents. “At this time, law enforcement has not acquired any evidence that would deem these threats as credible in our area. Out of an abundance of caution, our schools will be in continual contact with law enforcement throughout the day on Friday.”

Similar statements have been sent to parents in the Sudbury Public School District in Massachusetts, Shodack Central School District in New Yorka number of school districts across Wisconsin, and multiple school districts in Connecticut.

The FBI issued a statement regarding threats nationwide and in the Los Angeles area: “The FBI takes all potential threats seriously. We regularly work with our law enforcement partners to determine the credibility of any threats. As always, we would like to remind members of the public that if they observe anything suspicious to report it to law enforcement immediately. While we continue to monitor intelligence, we are not aware of any specific threats or known credible threats to schools in the Los Angeles region at this time.”

Dr. Amy Klinger, the director of programs for the Educator’s School Safety Network, a national non-profit, says these types of threats are nothing new — they’ve been tracking them since 2013.

“We had this hiatus during the pandemic, when schools were largely closed, where people kind of forgot that prior to the pandemic we had seen a significant increase every single year,” Klinger tells TODAY. “This is not 2021 phenomenon.”

Klinger says these types of threats have evolved, and their different forms — including on social media platforms like TikTok — have increased the reach and impact of threats of targeted violence against students in schools.

“It’s not just somebody in a classroom of 15 people hearing someone make a threat,” she explains. “It’s 15,000 people on social media, because it gets passed around and it becomes larger and larger and larger.”

A TikTok spokesperson provided this statement to CNBC: “Our employees, who are also parents and members of the community, share the worry that families and educators across the country are feeling based on media reports that content rumored to be on TikTok could promote school violence. We continue to aggressively search for any such content on our platform, but 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.”

Parents react to threats

Marci Peru, a mom of two daughters, kept her 16-year-old home from school due to safety concerns due to similar threats spreading on social media last week. Her daughter attends school in the Stanford school district in Connecticut, and told Peru that her friends weren’t going to school because people on TikTok were saying bombs were going to go off in schools.

“She’s emotionally sensitive to this stuff,” Peru tells TODAY Parents. “It wasn’t the fear that it would happen, but why put her through the chaos and confusion?” Peru says due to the threats, chaos did ensue last week — parents didn’t know if they should go to school and pick up their kids early, or if their children who are old enough to drive could drive themselves home. Multiple messages were made to parents and students, and eventually administrators canceled school altogether.

Today, Peru received another email regarding another string of threats made on TikTok — this time threatening school shootings.

“I just said, ‘Here we go again,'” she says. “The difference is, I’ve never heard of a school being bombed, but certainly school shootings are real and I got a little nervous, to be honest.”

Peru says two weeks of threats have taken a toll on her daughter, both mentally and physically.

“She has a constant headache, and she has stomach pains and cramps and is cranky and just on edge and she’s not sleeping as much and she’s out of a routine,” she explains. “Her mental health is absolutely suffering.”

Lauren Melissa Reynolds, a mom with three children all attending Oldham County school district in Kentucky, says she’s concerned about the nationwide threat, and says that schools should be a safe place for children.

“We have enough to worry about in this world. Rising COVID cases, deadly tornadoes,” Reynolds tells TODAY via email. “I am glad schools are taking the threat seriously and are proactively working closely with law enforcement.”

Dr. Shannon Curry, a clinical and forensic psychologist and owner of Curry Psychology Group, says a threat doesn’t have to be credible or carried out in order to cause substantial mental harm.

“Some research shows that the people who weren’t physically present at a traumatic event — didn’t witness it, weren’t exposed to it — can have higher rates of traumatic stress or overall distress than victims who were present at the event,” Curry tells TODAY. Curry says those mental health issues can include trouble sleeping, depression and trouble focusing, and can manifest in physical symptoms like headaches and heart problems.

How can parents help?

Curry says parents can help by limiting their kids’ exposure to social media and media coverage, assessing what is credible themselves and fostering a positive sense of community.

“Whatever you can do to limit their exposure to these images and sensationalized news stories is going to be for the better,” she explains. “And checking yourself to also make sure that you’re not playing into it. If we model it for them, they absolutely pick up on our reactions and our fears.”

To create positive community connections, Curry says parents can have friends and family over and engage in other activities — while following current COVID-19 safety protocols, of course.

Klinger also encourages parents to worry more about the issues that are statistically more likely to harm children — mental health issues, including the increased risk of suicidal ideation, prescription drug abuse and interpersonal violence.

“We’ve sort of set up this false dichotomy that people have in their heads that the only threats that exist for kids are that they’re either going to get COVID and die or they’re going to die in a school shooting,” Klinger says. “In reality, it’s all the stuff in between.”

The Educator’s School Safety Network offers a free online school safety course for teachers, parents and administrators.

“It’s helpful for people that are feeling very anxious about what they should do next,” she says.

As a parent, Peru says that while the last two weeks have been hard, she doesn’t feel like things are completely out of control because she can and will keep her children home if she feels she needs to.

“I’m telling the school they need to give her an excused absence because her mental health would have suffered being at school last week,” she says. “I don’t regret keeping her home.”