Deputy Corey Saucier of the Aroostook County Sheriff's Office speaks with students at a career day at Wisdom Middle/High School on Friday, April 13. Credit: Jessica Potila | Saint John Valley Times

FORT KENT, Maine — At least 350 students from St. John Valley schools were kept home by their parents over a widely shared Facebook post threatening gun violence that authorities determined it was an illegitimate threat.

More than half the student body at Valley Rivers Middle School/Fort Kent Community High School — 192 out of 380 students — did not attend school Friday, and nearly 40 percent of Fort Kent Elementary School’s 485 students were likewise absent. More than a third of students — 45 out of 138 — were absent from Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville. It was not immediately clear how many students were absent from Wisdom Middle High School in St. Agatha.

“The entire community was concerned, and a lot of people decided to keep their kids home today,” Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen said. “There is no threat to the community. The Sheriff’s Office will continue to work with the school on this matter.”

The absences were linked to a photo shared on Facebook of a masked teenage girl from St. Agatha with a caption threatening gun violence. Authorities had already investigated the photo. Valley Unified Superintendent Ben Sirois shared a letter on Thursday with parents notifying them of the situation and assured them it was safe to send their kids to school.

In an age when school shootings are all too common — and when viral misinformation can spread on Facebook faster than legitimate news — Friday’s absences show the challenge authorities face in trying to quell fears about such threats.

“This is not a new threat and not specific to the Fort Kent schools or the University of Maine at Fort Kent,” Sirois said in the letter to parents. “It was not in relation to schools at all. The Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office were notified immediately when that original social media message went out and have been on the case ever since.”

On Thursday the same image began circulating on social media. As the photo racked up hundreds of shares, rumors began to circulate that the girl in the photo planned to engage in a school shooting, a claim for which there was no evidence, according to Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier.

Still, Fort Kent police increased patrols at the schools in that town on Friday to put parents’ minds at ease.

“I don’t believe that the children were in danger to start with because this had been handled by police earlier this week and at no time was there ever any mention of a mass shooting in any of the schools. Those were additions and assumptions that were made from the original picture that was posted,” Pelletier said. “We caution everybody not to post things like that without having any firsthand knowledge because it certainly causes an undue panic.”

The students who did not attend will be excused for their absences, Sirios said Friday.