GREEN TOWNSHIP — Two Oak Hills High School students planned to meet after school to have a fistfight, and word spread.
Just as they headed toward the fight, a Green Township police officer who directs traffic every day at the school realized he had forgotten his fabric reflective vest and ran back to his car to retrieve it.
That's all the information that one student needed to tweet to the world that something big was happening near the flagpole and that police were putting on bulletproof vests.
That kind of rumor-mongering is the downside of ubiquitous social media at schools today that administrators have to address during crises like the wave of bomb threats at Tri-State schools over the last several weeks.
"Typically when the students grab a hold of something, they don’t think about verifying a source or anything. They just push along what they hear," Oak Hill High School Principal John Stoddard said. "We spend a lot of time answering questions about things that are not at all accurate."
He and his staff were left to stamp out the misinformation about an unfortunate but non-lethal fistfight before it caused a panic.
Harnessing social media for good
In an era when school shootings occur at a sickening rate, students, parents and staff can never dismiss a rumor about pending violence. But schools struggle to make sure that accurate information reaches the community and false rumors are kept at a minimum.
"I read so many different stories on Facebook alone. I have a 5- and a 10-year-old in the same school, and when things like this happen and stories get twisted, it causes a bit of panic," said Reba Brock, whose children attend Middletown City Schools.
Schools are taking a proactive approach to use social media as a tool instead of a hindrance. When a bomb threat was phoned into Oakdale Elementary at about 9:55 Wednesday morning, Oak Hills school district's emergency information system sent out an evacuation notice to parents by 10:05 a.m. via email, text messages and phone calls.
Police sort fact from fiction
"They used the automatic text message system, and it seemed to be very effective," Green Township Lt. Mitch Hill said. "It told parents where to pick up their children."
He said police officers and schools have limited power to control others sending out false information but need to combat that with facts.
"I think our best strategy is to get the correct information out there," Hill said.
He quickly added that anyone who hears rumors about a threat should contact the police so that they can follow up and prevent trouble.
Oak Hills Superintendent Todd Yohey said the response to the Oakdale Elementary bomb threat — one of a string of false bomb threats issued throughout the Tri-State in the last two weeks — was nearly perfect.
"We actually texted out a wrong address for parent pickup, but that was quickly corrected. As far as I know that was only the glitch," he said. "I think social media is a good way for us to communicate with a large group of people all at once. It's a good way to for a school district to get a message out and provide some additional detail at the same time."
Teaching responsible sharing
Stoddard said it's a long process to teach students how important it is to think about whether a tweet, text or Instagram message they receive is accurate and okay to spread further.
"If we can do it one-on-one, we do," he said. "When you deliver a message to a group of people, they all assume that message is great — for someone else."
Social studies teachers at Oak Hills challenge students to learn about primary sources of material and to question the accuracy of second- and third-hand information.
"Where we're having the disconnect is we're not making the connection of sourcing material in class and sourcing in everyday life what they see on their phones," he said.
It's critical to tamping out rumors in school and, down the line, become informed citizens who are challenged to weed out inaccurate spin generated by political campaigns and pseudo-news sources with an agenda.
"When it's time to vote, this is a critical skill," Stoddard said.
Yohey said educators will keep impressing on students and the larger community to be sure about information in an emergency before spreading it.
"We want to use social media as a communication tool, but we caution people to make sure that they get the facts before making any judgment or jumping into a conversation. Sometimes we just see these conversations spiral out of control based on bad information," he said.