Students in Lewiston did not even go to school. Several in Gorham were dismissed early. In Bangor, a student found a written threat that required a police response.
Those were just some of the repercussions in Maine’s schools on Friday from nationwide threats of violence in schools primarily spread over social media. Numerous other Maine districts increased security and told parents what they were doing to keep children safe.
The concern emerged after a viral trend on the social media platform TikTok warned that school violence would occur nationwide on Friday. While the threats were empty — the U.S. Department of Homeland Security called them unsubstantiated — they still caused wide disruptions and reflected the ease of transmitting threats that can quickly create wide concern.
Friday’s threats came amid increased concerns about security in schools during a pandemic that experts say has been emotionally devastating for children. In a time that has been hard on kids, it may indicate that monitoring students’ well-being is more important than ever for schools and parents.
Threats against schools are not new, said Amy Klinger, programs director at the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit. Threats and violent incidents in U.S. schools have risen almost every year since her organization began tracking them in 2013 and the pandemic has exacerbated them by taking many students away from their friends and support networks. Suicidal thoughts, violent behavior and drug overdoses are up, among other consequences.
“It’s almost an inevitable consequence of both what’s happened in the last 18 months or so and what was already happening before the pandemic,” Klinger said.
Many also fear the role social media is playing: Brewer School Department Superintendent Gregg Palmer, who said his department was unaffected by Friday’s threats but had been one of several in Maine to get a similar one in January 2020, said social media is giving people who want to disrupt schools the ability to do so anonymously.
“Social media has also reduced the barrier between impulse and action,” Palmer said. “Someone gets angry, or is dysregulated in a moment, and before they have a chance to think it over, they can issue an online threat.”
These threats can affect all types of schools — rural and urban and in places like Maine that have never seen significant school violence. Since 1970, Maine has had the 12th-lowest rate of K-12 violent incidents, according to The K-12 School Shooting Database.
The most worrying one was in 2008 in Stockton Springs, when a 55-year-old gunman entered a fifth-grade classroom at Stockton Springs Elementary and took around a dozen people hostage, including 11 students. He later surrendered without incident and no one was physically harmed.
Mass shootings, which have long attracted national interest and concern in the United States, remain a significant fear for many school districts, Klinger said.
Bangor School Department spokesperson Ray Phinney noted the proximity of the threats to a shooting at a Michigan high school around three weeks ago that killed four and injured seven, as well as the ninth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting just two days before the threats.
Districts need to stop focusing on specifically preventing such incidents and start addressing the well-being of their student populations, Klinger said. That includes developing relationship-based cultures in schools that provide support and intervention when necessary. Recent debate over COVID-19 protocols had often overshadowed such worries, she said.
School administrators should also be cautious about how much credence they give to unsubstantiated threats, Klinger said. Shutting down school when there is no actual danger can encourage more threats and create anxiety, fear and disruption, she said.
Her philosophy appeared to coincide with the actions of the Bangor School Department on Friday. In the aftermath of a student finding a written threat at Fairmount School in Bangor – which contains fourth and fifth-graders – police were called but they found the threat not to be credible, Phinney said. It did not disrupt the school day.
The most specific threats usually require the most robust measures, Klinger said, such as if it identifies a specific time and place where violence will occur.
“Not all threats are created equal,” Klinger said.