DENVER (KDVR) – Schools nationwide were on alert in response to TikTok posts warning of shooting and bomb threats at schools around the country on Friday as officials assured parents the viral posts were not considered credible.
The social media threats had many educators on edge as they circulated in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Michigan, which has been followed by numerous copycat threats to schools elsewhere. The vague, anonymous posts circulating online warned that multiple schools would receive shooting and bomb threats.
Colorado schools respond to TikTok threats
Some Colorado school districts, like the Douglas County School District, Aurora Public Schools and Adams 12 Five Star Schools were already on winter break. Meanwhile, the Woodland Park School District RE-2 near Colorado Springs canceled school on Friday, while Pitkin County announced plans for a heightened police presence at schools.
Denver Public Schools sent a note to parents and students Thursday evening in light of the rumors.
“We have been made aware that this ‘challenge’ is an anonymous general threat that is circulating on the social media platform TikTok. The threat is against all schools identifying Friday, December 17, 2021, as ‘National School Shooting Day,'” DPS wrote.
The school district said it is working with police to assess the threat and then it will decide the best course of action for the school community.
“State and local law enforcement officers have investigated this threat on TikTok. They did not find any specific links to Denver Public Schools and have determined the threat is not credible,” DPS said. “Nonetheless, and, as an added precaution, district officials and school leaders across DPS are continuing to work with Denver police and the DPS Dept. of Safety to ensure that all of our students and staff are safe.”
Ken Trump is the president of National School Safety and Security Services, advising and consulting districts nationwide.
“The vast majority of threats, fortunately, will turn out to be not credible. But no school administrator wants to be the one that is credible. Threats have to be investigated thoroughly and treated seriously,” Trump said.
TikTok’s disturbing trends
The posts follow a disturbing trend that has had students acting out in response to social media challenges. In September, students across the U.S. posted videos of themselves vandalizing school bathrooms and stealing soap dispensers as part of the “devious licks” challenge.
In October, students were challenged to slap a teacher, prompting the National Education Association to call on the leaders of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to intervene.
Internet companies such as TikTok are generally exempt from liability under U.S. law for the material users post on their networks, thanks in large part to the legal “safe harbor” they are given by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
“It would be unlikely that TikTok would be liable if there were actually to be a shooting,” said Jeff Kosseff, who wrote a book about Section 230 and teaches cybersecurity law at the U.S. Naval Academy. “Even without 230, there are just a lot of barriers against being able to bring a cause of action against the medium on which a threat was posted.”
But Kosseff, who got a warning about the TikTok challenge Thursday from his daughter’s school district in Arlington, Virginia, said that doesn’t mean TikTok can’t do something about it.
“They have a lot of flexibility to be doing the right thing and taking down harmful content. I am hopeful they are doing that,” he said.
Report concerns to Safe2Tell
School officials are encouraging parents to report any concerns or suspicious activity through Safe2Tell. The platform, aimed at protecting students from potential threats, allows people to leave anonymous tips.
“A generalized suggestion to do something bad doesn’t give us at Safe2Tell much to work with. We want to know what students, what schools, what area is facing a threat. That’s something we can work with,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said.
Weiser said when in doubt, report potentially dangerous activity.
“Protect yourself, protect your kids. We can be better if we can step away from some of the hating, some of the negativity and give ourselves more sources of positivity,” Weiser said.
Through Safe2Tell, anyone who is concerned can go visit safe2tell.org or call 1-877-542-7233.