Park City School District schooled by social media
May 3, 2016
Park City School District administrators learned a painful lesson this week, but they are not the first to underestimate the viral power of social media.
Last October, a student threatened to carry out some sort of violent act on the district campus on May 3. The student was quickly disciplined but the matter was not officially acknowledged — until 10:05 p.m. on May 2, the night before the alleged perpetrator had threatened to strike.
Whiffs of an impending wildfire drifted across the social media landscape as the date drew near and a handful of teens, familiar with the October threat began speculating about whether the danger was indeed extinguished. The rumors ignited Monday evening, finally prompting the school superintendent to respond. But instead of reassuring parents that the situation was well in hand, her email frightened and infuriated them.
In retrospect, trying to keep the matter under wraps over the winter was a mistake. Had the district informed its constituents earlier, it would not have faced an angry Facebook mob on Tuesday, in the midst of an already-tense period of end-of-school-year testing. If, for instance, the district had issued a release in January that they had discovered, and foiled, a plan to harm school district personnel and would, as a cautionary measure, step up security anyway, the outcry would likely have been muted. Questions would have been answered and fears dispelled.
The district, though, was in an ethical bind. They had a legal obligation to protect the suspect’s privacy. There were worries about whether others might retaliate against the troubled student and their family.
Those are legitimate concerns, but the district has a larger responsibility to the student body as a whole and their parents. Against a backdrop of random school violence, these days, it is essential to be forthcoming about school campus safety about what is being done and what more needs to be done.
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That is especially true in an environment saturated with social media. Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat and the rest can be powerful tools for building community. But they are also matchsticks when it comes to spreading incendiary rumors.
The Park City School District failed to foresee this particular brushfire. But, thankfully, no one was hurt and valuable lessons were learned. In the future, school district administrators should assume that whatever they hope will go unnoticed, will likely be highlighted on the Internet. Their best bet is to post it first.