With the shooting tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. still a fresh wound, Cary-Grove High School endured an “unfounded” threat via social media involving images of “violent acts,” which were reported late Feb. 26 to Cary police.
A similar incident occurred Jan. 31, with broad generalizations as content that was deemed a non-threat by investigators and Community High School District 155 officials.
The social media threats took the form of three photos that proliferated Feb. 26 through Facebook and Snapchat. One photo was assembled but a second image was posted by someone other than the original sender. The third photo had attached commentary and misleading information concerning the initial photo.
District officials communicated through emails to parents at approximately 10 p.m. Feb. 26, and a subsequent email sent at 7:55 a.m. Feb. 27 concerning the incident. A police presence was readily apparent at the school that morning.
“What you had was a post onto social media … then someone got ahold of it and manipulated it,” said Cary Deputy Chief Jim Fillmore. “The post was rebroadcast with misleading information, and then reposted several more times. This is an ongoing investigation, and federal authorities were involved, and we can reach out to them again, if need be.”
District 155 Communications Manager Shannon Podzimek would not comment on aspects of the investigation, currently being conducted by the Cary Police Department.
Following the Jan. 31 incident, and the Florida shooting, safety protocols at district facilities were altered. In a Feb. 23 statement, district Superintendent Steve Olsen stated, “In light of recent events, we want you to know that student and staff safety is our number one priority. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with our local agencies … providing a safe learning environment is taken very seriously. We want you to be aware of the steps … to ensure the safety of our students and staff.”
The alert outlined that each school building has a monitored and secure entrance, the high schools have an active police officer on-duty, a protocol of safety plans that are reviewed annually, as well as coordination with local fire and public safety agencies. Fire drills, lockdown drills, tornado drills and other student safety drills are practiced throughout the year.
Student assistance counselors for both mental health and substance abuse are available and Text-A-Tip supplies anonymous support for teens with a concern or crisis.
“Students and staff are educated about the importance of being vigilant and reporting information if they see or hear something,” Olson said. “When students, staff or parents report concerns … we follow up on every lead, review our procedures and practice drills throughout the year to make sure our students are safe.”
It was also noted that the timing of the district statement came three days before the latest social media threat against the high school.
“We will not respond, or even speculate on such an occurrence,” Podzimek said in an email, on behalf of the district.
Fillmore stated, “At this time, we and other authorities do not believe that there is a correlation between the public safety posting of Feb. 23, and the incident that took place.”
The Cary-Grove incident also carries overtones of “swatting,” a method of lodging false reports regarding a serious threat, an emergency situation, or an alleged incident triggering a law enforcement response. The acts are often committed through phone or computer scrambling and using various routing sources to obfuscate tracking efforts by authorities.
“The problem with ‘swatting’ is that when you try to track it down through the routing, depending on which country it goes through, those authorities are not very helpful,” said Fillmore. “These people know how to route (transmissions) so that it becomes almost untraceable. This incident caused a lot of hysteria, which is what these people are looking to do.
“There were a couple of ‘swatting’ incidents in Cary, within the last two years. We are very watchful,” he said. “This investigation is still ongoing, and Federal law enforcement assistance is still available to us.”