It’s like playing a game of telephone ... on steroids.
We’re talking about the frenzy of misinformation that flew through Fort Atkinson cyberspace in the wake of shootings early this week at two Wisconsin high schools.
On Monday, a Waukesha police resource officer shot a 17-year-old Waukesha South High School student who pointed one of two pellet guns he had at another student’s head. Meanwhile across town, a gun that later was found to be fake was reported at Waukesha North High School.
Then on Tuesday, a 16-year-old Oshkosh West High School student was shot by an Oshkosh school resource officer after the boy stabbed him. Also that day, school was called off after a Sparta student and his parents’ firearm went missing, a Germantown student made threats that later were deemed not credible and West Bend police investigated an alleged online post about a scheduled school shooting, though no evidence was found.
Amid this flurry of news, it did not take long for the rumor mill — both in the halls of Fort Atkinson High School and on social media — to start grinding out false reports of local teens threatening violence. The hearsay apparently went from students to parents to the community so fast that a member of a popular local news group “reported” that police had taken students out of class for threats made against the school. Within hours, the post had almost 70 comments, 37 reactions and several shares. Comments ranged from parents saying their children feel unsafe at school to a discussion of gun control to complaints about school administrators.
School district officials issued a statement denying the rumors, emphasizing that no threats ever were made and the police were not called in. “Unfortunately, rumors and miscommunication within the student population as well as with parents have caused, and continue to cause worry within our community,” the district wrote.
Still, as in a game of telephone, the falsehoods snowballed.
Social media can be very useful in the event of such incidents, as school officials are able to send real-time information and updates to parents. However, as we saw in Fort Atkinson this week, the dissemination of unsubstantiated threats can create unnecessary panic and concern within the schools and community.
The School District of Fort Atkinson does have a plan of action in place should a school threat occur. Staff have been trained on what to do and students have practiced their part. The plan includes extensive communication with staff, parents, students and residents.
And it works. It was in February 2018 that a 23-year-old man with a German Shepherd-type dog entered the district administrative offices on the north side of Luther Elementary School and made verbal threats, intimating that he had a weapon and whistling a creepy song from the movie “Kill Bill.” Staff called 911 and the building was placed on lockdown. Four minutes later, the man was in custody. Parents were contacted.
While it ended quickly and safely, the incident remains etched in the minds of all who were at Luther that day. No doubt it heightened the community’s awareness that school tragedies can happen anywhere, even in Fort Atkinson.
As unsettling as that is, rushing to judgement and dispersing misinformation only compound the anxiety and confusion. Always seek out credible news sources and don’t take everything you read on social media as gospel.
As in a game of telephone, news travels fast. But not necessarily factually.
Spread the word.