RICHMOND, Va. -- Parents and school officials said they're concerned about social media threats targeting students at a Richmond high school that have caused disruptions and "turmoil" in the classrooms. The posts have also prompted investigations by Richmond Police and the Department of Homeland Security.
Richmond Police increased its presence at Huguenot High School on the city's Southside Thursday, and Richmond Public Schools amped up its own school security measures in response to the threats.
“School should be safe, but when your child wakes up and hears things and doesn’t want to go to school, that’s very concerning and scary," said Tisha Erby, an RPS parent who has a freshman student at Huguenot. "I'm mad, like I'm very mad."
Erby said she knew something was off when she dropped her son off at school Thursday morning and saw lines of students waiting outside to get in. She then learned that security was doing a rigorous check of students as they walked through the metal detectors.
She said she was aware of the social media posts in question but said her son has unfortunately grown accustomed to online threats and fights.
"He's scared to speak up to say anything. It's the new norm to him, and he knows there are fights constantly," Erby said.
4th District School Board Member Jonathan Young, whose district includes Huguenot, said for weeks, students have been posting anonymous threats on Instagram, targeting certain individuals, and cyberbullying them.
“Students are speaking real ill and often most disgusting kinds of things about their colleagues. It's prompting a lot of anxiety, and what's worse, actual altercations and fights among students," Young said. "Tragically, this has been going on for a really long time."
While police said the threats could potentially be hoaxes, Young said it was incumbent upon RPS to take swift and diligent action to assess and prepare for any possible dangerous situations.
“You have to take every threat seriously," Young said. "And to do that, you have to partner with first responders and those folks in the community who are most capable of addressing said threats. That's our friends in the Richmond Police Department."
In a statement to CBS 6, Richmond Police said it will hold whoever made the threats or hoaxes accountable.
"The Richmond Police Department and its law enforcement partners take every threat to public safety seriously. Making hoax threats to target and attack people at schools and other public places are serious crimes. We will investigate these incidents and charge those responsible for threats or hoaxes," said RPD spokesperson Tracy Walker.
Walker said the department will also rely on the public's assistance to help curb threats by reporting suspicious activity to 911.
"Early intervention can prevent a situation from escalating. Remember, if you see something, say something. Hoax threats are not a joke, so think before you post," Walker said.
Young said the situation at Huguenot speaks to a larger issue, not only facing RPS but across the country, about the distractions that social media brings into the classrooms.
Last year, RPS documented more than 4,400 alerts through a program called Gaggle, which helps school divisions combat violence by scanning students' school devices for troubling language. During an October presentation to the Richmond School Board, the district director who oversees those alerts said RPS expects to receive up to 5,000 during the current school year.
Young also noted the principal of River City Middle School told him 80% of the problems that originate in her building pertain to social media and cellphones.
"We have a real problem," Young said. "It's really incumbent on my colleagues on the school board to address this."
He said the board is considering a couple avenues for solutions. In October, school board members voted in support of tasking Superintendent Jason Kamras to present policy proposal options that would restrict cellphone usage in school, similar to Hopewell Schools' new rule, and limit the content that can be accessed on school devices.
Vice Chair Kenya Gibson introduced the effort as she expressed concerns over the violent content that is available to RPS students via school-issued Chromebrooks which she believed has caused classroom distractions. Gibson also wanted to curb access to YouTube district-wide while still allowing teachers to share educational content.
"As a parent and as a board member I’ve been pushing for what seems like common sense when it comes to technology. Why have we allowed our students to spend hours on YouTube and on social media sites with school devices? It’s getting in the way of academics and safety. I’m just thankful the board is moving forward with finding solutions that both teachers and parents have been asking for," Gibson said in a statement to CBS 6 Thursday.
Kamras is expected to make his recommendations to the board in January.
As a parent of students at all levels in the district, Erby said she doesn't want her children using cellphones or social media in school.
"I know they need technology for the real world, but why can't we go back to paper and pens and books and stuff like that the old school way," Erby said.
Erby said she keeps a close eye on her kids' internet usage when they're at home and implores other parents to do the same.
"Being their friends will get them into more trouble. Be the parent. Put your foot down. Be that active parent. Know what your kids are doing at all times, because I know I am. I don't play," Erby said.
A spokesperson for Superintendent Jason Kamras said he was not available for an inteview Thursday, but shared the following statement:
We are continuing to encourage our students to reach out to us with any additional information and utilize our other reporting mechanisms such as Gaggle and firstname.lastname@example.org (or text/calls to 804-655-5585). We ask all parents to monitor their child's social media interactions and encourage responsible digital citizenship behaviors.
CBS 6 also reached out to the surrounding school districts to see if they've experienced similar problems with online threats.
Henrico Schools was the only district to respond. A spokesperson said the division is not experiencing a rise in social media threats.
"In general, however, staff works diligently to create relationships with students and families where they feel safe reporting suspicious posts or activities to an adult at school or police. Additionally, the school division has an online Anonymous Alert system where a student, family member, employee, or community member can report safety concerns, vandalism, etc," said spokesperson Eileen Cox.
Richmond Police shared the following tips for parents:
Tips for responsible social media use:
- Don’t ever post or send hoax threats online;
- If you are a target of an online threat, alert law enforcement immediately;
- Notify authorities but don’t share or forward the threat until law enforcement has had a chance to investigate—this can spread misinformation and cause panic.
Parents or caretakers of children:
The more you teach your child how to responsibly use social media, the better.
- Stress to your children that making any kind of threat online—even if they think it's a joke—is a crime;
- Monitor their social media, there are apps available;
- Know who your child is spending time with in person and online;
Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email email@example.com to send a tip.