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How Utah schools are handling the TikTok school shooting threat

Governor says threats to Utah schools occur ‘every day’ but reporting by students, parents can set interventions in motion

A police vehicle is parked in front of West High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.
A police vehicle is parked in front of West High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. After separate threats to two Utah school districts this past week, one resulting in a lockdown of Salt Lake City’s West High School and a temporary pivot to online learning in eight Box Elder County schools, officials including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox urge parents and students to report information that is concerning or out of the ordinary.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

After separate threats to two Utah school districts this past week, one resulting in a lockdown of Salt Lake City’s West High School most of one school day and a temporary pivot to online learning in eight Box Elder County schools, officials including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox urge parents and students to report information that is concerning or out of the ordinary.

“I can tell you that there have been cases ... that haven’t made the news where there have been interventions we believe that have prevented any type of violence or casualties,” said Cox on Thursday during PBS Utah’s Governor’s Monthly News Conference.

Simply put, “If you see something, say something,’” said Sgt. Jeremy Barnes, the Utah Department of Public Safety’s school safety liaison, in an interview.

Schools across the country are taking heightened precautions after a TikTok school threat emerged suggesting numerous school shootings will take place on Dec. 17. There is no evidence the threat is credible.

However, a Matheson Junior High School student was taken into custody Thursday and taken to Salt Lake Valley Detention Center after leveling a “very specific threat” on social media against students and staff at the Magna school, said Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley.

The language used by the student appears to be lifted from similar social media posts circulating around the country in advance of Dec. 17, but the local threat does not appear credible, a letter to parents by Matheson Junior High Principal Megan Madsen states.

“In addition to criminal charges including a felony charge of making a terroristic threat, the suspect will also face school and district level discipline,” the letter states.

It continued, “While we are grateful for this outcome, we are still very concerned with the overarching social media use among our students. While there is no research that supports any advantages for the use of social media for our children, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it can cause grave harm and emotional danger. We respectfully request that you seriously consider removing access to social media from your child. Please also remind your child that making any sort of threat is a crime and will be aggressively prosecuted.”

The Matheson Junior High incident comes on the heels of two threats in other Utah school districts earlier in the week.

Earlier this week, a West High student stole a firearm from a family member and brought it to school on Monday, prompting a lockdown of the building, according to police. A student involved was taken to Salt Lake Valley Detention Center and two others detained, police said. The gun was later recovered.

In the Box Elder School District, an unidentified student drew a picture of a gun along with the date “12/13/21” in a bathroom stall last Friday, and police on Sunday received additional tips about a Snapchat message with a gun sent by a student, and another photo talking about an explosion, police said. Classes were moved online Monday as the threats were investigated, and by that afternoon, two students had been identified as being responsible and now face potential criminal charges. Police said the threats were “attempts at being funny.”

Two-thirds of the perpetrators of school attacks communicate their intentions or threaten the target within two weeks of the attack, according to a 2019 Secret Service report, Protecting America’s Schools/Analysis of Targeted School Violence.

The report also found that 54% of attackers communicated their intent within two days of an attack and 37% communicated their intent or threatened the target within an hour of the attack.

This “leakage” is “information that’s being put out before the attack happens while the individual is on the pathway to violence, Barnes said. “When that information is taken and reported, that’s where some intervention can occur,” he said.

“If you see something that is is out of out of the normal, if you see something that is concerning to you, say something,” he urged, whether it’s reported via the SafeUT app, which provides platform to report threats and receive crisis intervention, or by telling a school resource officer, school counselor, teacher or other trusted adult at school “so that they can come together in a multidisciplinary approach and handle the situation before it becomes something that would be a tragedy.”

SafeUT’s 2020 annual report indicates that nearly one-third of 294 threats reported via the app were categorized as planned school attacks.

Cox noted that Utah has “some tools that other states don’t have. It’s one of the reasons we encourage the SafeUT app to be downloaded in every school on every smart device.”

In 2019, the Utah Legislature passed legislation and appropriated funding to establish the School Safety Center within the Utah Board of Education. The team includes educators, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and data analysts, among others.

Rhett Larsen, school and student safety specialist for the state school board, who is a safety center team member, said when a threat is made, school districts conduct evidence-based assessments to determine an appropriate response.

“When threats arise, we certainly don’t want to overreact, we don’t want to underreact. We really need to work as a team pulled together: that multidisciplinary team with the school based-mental health, the school administrator, school resource officer and other resources ... and look at those threats to determine if they’re serious or not serious and then what interventions need to take place,” Larsen said.

In the face of a vague social media threat against a “GHS,” David Dunn, the principal of Granger High School, told parents in a letter late Wednesday that Granite School District and state and local law enforcement partners found no credible evidence of a threat.

“The social media post in question is from a ghost (non-identifiable account) that infers a threat in a couple of days for a ‘GHS.’ There is no specific mention of Granger High School. There are multiple schools in the state of Utah who use the moniker GHS as well as dozens more throughout the United States. Regardless, we take every potential threat very seriously and continue to investigate. Out of an abundance of caution, we will have an increased police presence on our campus over the next few days,” Dunn wrote.

Dunn urged parents’ help: “Please check your student’s smartphone device for any of the following social media platforms: Snapchat, Instagram or TikTok. We are looking for a user account on any of those platforms that goes by evil eye, serenity or yelizaveta. If you identify any of those user handles, please contact Granite police at (801) 481-7122 at any time.”

The threat “is an unfortunate reminder that many of our students are unable to responsibly use social media,” he wrote.

Dunn noted that the threats cause needless panic and concern for students and their families.

“We respectfully request that if you are unable to monitor your child’s smartphone and social media use, that you restrict access to it. Schools and law enforcement do NOT have the ability to monitor thousands of students’ social media accounts. This is the responsibility of the parent or guardian,” he wrote.

As for students at schools affected by lockdowns, temporary closures or those concerned by threats, Larsen said he feels badly that students experience these events.

“I am grateful that we have these protocols in place to ensure that our students are safe,” Larsen said. Schools and community partners continue to assess what students need and provide support for them when threats occur.

“Again, I wish we didn’t have to have lock downs but unfortunately we do as situations arise to ensure the safety of each student,” he said.

Barnes acknowledged that such such events can be “traumatizing and we’re not trying to downplay any of them. But it is important to remember that schools are still safe. The majority of schools are safe.”

Contributing: Katie McKellar