HUNTLEY – Despite an increase in threats to schools made on social media, Huntley School District 158 Superintendent John Burkey still believes schools are the safest place students can be.
From bomb threats sent on Facebook to a rumor being retweeted among students to threatening comments made on Xbox, the opportunities for social media threats are endless because of the various websites in existence, police officials said.
“Social media has changed everything for us because students can go online on a variety of different mediums and make comments that could be inappropriate all the way to what is a severe threat,” Burkey said. “Because of technology and the mediums, there is an increase, and it’s happening everywhere. Schools all over the country are dealing with it.”
Two cases in October and November involving social media threats ended with hate crime charges filed against a former Marlowe Middle School student and a Huntley resident.
McHenry East High School also heightened its security in September after a minor posted a threat on a personal social media account.
Scott Shepard, assistant superintendent of educational services for Community High School District 155, said the district sees one to two cases a year, and most threats typically are not credible.
Lake in the Hills Police Chief David Brey said threats often are reported by parents or students. District 158 has 9,644 students, with about 3,000 from Lake in the Hills and 5,000 from Huntley.
“Each case is different with different players, different types of threats and different websites,” Huntley Police Sgt. Linda Hooten said.
One thing remains the same no matter what kind of threat it is: threats are taken seriously and all are investigated. A majority of them end up not being credible, Burkey said.
Cooperation and good communication between the school districts and police departments is vital because each agency has a different role once a threat is brought to light, Burkey said.
School resource officer Ryan Gregorio works at Huntley High School and helps provide another method of communication between the police department and students.
“Having an officer there working with the staff is a significant enhancement from a security perspective,” Huntley Police Chief Robert Porter said. “Sometimes the threats could be something written in a bathroom, and to have him there and starting to work with the staff to get to the bottom of what happened is a huge asset.”
Each semester, Gregorio and the freshman dean speak to the incoming freshman class and warn students about the consequences of such threats.
Police declined to reveal specific techniques used to find a suspect, but they said they work with different vendors to try to locate threats, and they use software to track social media.
“You leave a digital footprint,” Hooten said. “Whatever you post, whatever site you go to, it’s logged, time-stamped, and the kids know that.”
If it’s digital, a student will be caught, Burkey said, adding that police departments have done an excellent job at forensic work when threats are made on a phone or Xbox that can be traced.
“A student who does that is eventually going to get caught, and we make it a big part of our education because we don’t want copycats,” Burkey said.
With District 158’s 1:1 program, students are given Chromebooks as early as kindergarten. Burkey said the district tries to educate them at a younger age about appropriate uses of technology and digital citizenship.
District 155 also has a 1:1 program that allows for some monitoring on school-issued devices, but most of the time, reports are brought in from other people reporting them, Shepard said.
The district also is sending the message that if a student makes a serious threat, it will be handled as severely as possible at the school and judicial level because officials do not want people to be in a situation where they are frightened, Burkey said.
“I think that message has been very effective, and we’ve had a couple of cases this fall that are known about,” Burkey said. “We have 10,000 students in District 158, and I can tell you 99 percent of them would never make a threat of that nature because they know it’s not the right thing to do and they know there will be consequences.”
Is the threat credible?
Steps taken to find out whether a threat is credible are circumstantial, Porter said.
Police try to verify whether more than one person has been told the threat. Sometimes they get in contact with a potential suspect and try to find items that verify whether a threat is underway.
Hooten said police sometimes interview different students who might have seen the threat, and many reports come from students themselves.
The decision to shut down the school, go into a lockdown or add additional police presence is made collectively between the district and the departments, Brey said.
“We talk about where the investigation is leading, what we know, what possibly is out there, and then we come to a consensus of what is best,” Brey said. “We want to make sure the message is consistent going to the parents.”
Police often find the source of the threat relatively quickly, Porter said.
Burkey said he tries to communicate with parents as much as he can, but sometimes the district can’t share all known information when an investigation is ongoing.
“I know sometimes that scares people if we notify them that there is a threat, but we know what we know, the police have information, and then we take measures that need to be taken if there is, in fact, a security threat,” Burkey said.
Lake in the Hills Deputy Chief of Support Services Mary Frake said that the department’s priority is to get consistent and coordinated messages out to the public because it does not want anyone to be confused.
Porter recommended that parents verify information by contacting the police department or school before posting about it online.
“We’ll never get ahead of social media, and typically, what we see on social media has rumors and innuendo,” Porter said. “Try and verify your information before you throw it out there because as a parent, you are trusting their kids when they leave that door to go to school, and we certainly don’t want to have panic.”
Huntley Deputy Police Chief Michael Klunk said it is important for parents to supervise their kids and be involved with whatever form of communication they use, whether it’s cellphones, computers or school-issued devices.
“While nationwide there have been some tragic school events and school shootings, schools are still one of the safest places that kids can go,” Burkey said. “We live in a society where there is not 100 percent safety anywhere, but we have taken incredibly good measures to make sure our schools are as safe as possible, yet they are still open, public schools. We don’t want them to be fortresses, but we want them to be safe, and I think we’ve struck that balance well in District 158.”