Schools, police across region handling social media-fueled rumors

2012-12-20T13:30:00Z 2013-12-20T22:15:54Z Schools, police across region handling social media-fueled rumorsJoyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222 nwitimes.com

Last week's shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the notion that the world could end Friday has fueled rumors across the region and nation, many of them targeting schools. Police said three teens were arrested Wednesday and Thursday after making threats.

Social media also has been a help and a hindrance, according to school and law enforcement officials.

Duneland, Union Township, Crown Point and Portage Township schools have dealt with rumors that something will happen at their respective high schools Friday. Those rumors are unsubstantiated, local officials said. All four districts have made efforts to contact parents, either via email or telephone calls, to reassure them that all precautions are being taken to keep their children safe.

"We've spent the last 24 hours working with law enforcement officials," said Duneland Superintendent Dirk Baer, adding the district stepped up law enforcement presence at its schools this week but have not placed buildings on lockdown. Baer sent an email out to all Duneland parents Thursday morning making them aware of the situation and trying to reassure them.

In a memorandum to parents Thursday, Crown Point High School Principal Chip Pettit said there have been no confirmation of any direct threats to his school and that the school's staff and Crown Point Police Department have investigated multiple rumors in the past week.

"Based on the information collected during the interviews with over 40 students and multiple parents, there is no evidence to lead us to believe that Friday will be any different than any other day at CPHS," Pettit wrote, adding the district is making security its highest priority. He also asked people to not spread rumors or forward any messages pertaining to security threats at the school.

In an email to parents, Union Township Superintendent John Hunter told parents of the rumor and told them their buildings would be placed on lockdown Thursday and Friday.

Arrests

On Thursday, Portage Township Superintendent E. Ric Frataccia and Police Chief Troy Williams put the all-call system to work Wednesday after a student was arrested at Portage High School.

He had made threats of bringing a gun to school on Friday the previous week, Williams said. A school resource officer was notified by students Wednesday of the threat, and school and police officials located the student. He was arrested and expelled after officials found a knife on him.

"We don't believe he had any access to guns," Williams said.

An 18-year-old former PHS student also was arrested at his home Wednesday afternoon after making threats — not directed at the schools — on Facebook.

A 16-year-old Valparaiso High School student was arrested Thursday by Porter County Sheriff's Department officials after making threats on social media, sheriff's spokesman Larry LaFlower said.

The teen posted "Your all going to die!" and "DEATH!" on a Facebook posting about a lockdown at Wheeler High School, according to a Sheriff's Department news release.

He was arrested on one count of intimidation and one count of resisting law enforcement after allegedly fighting with detectives as they investigated.

LaFlower said any threat will be seriously investigated and prosecuted to the full extent, even if it was a joke.

"In the wake of all the events that have been happening, it's not funny (to make jokes)," he said. "We are 100 percent all about the safety of our children and the students in our schools."

Precautions

Frataccia said Portage schools are on lockdown at the start of school each morning with doors locked and a buzzer system in use to gain entrance to buildings. That's nothing new, he said, but it is being re-enforced.

Williams said nearly every school in the region has heard the threats, many of them fueled by social media.

"If you hear something, contact us, but don't spread rumors via social media," said Williams, adding they take the rumors very seriously and investigate each one. "We can't take chances."

Williams has been using Facebook to keep parents and residents updated on police and school efforts, including early Thursday afternoon after a rumor about a gunman at Portage High School sent parents to the school to pick up their children.

"Parents/Residents ... there is NOT a gunman at Portage High School. Apparently, some students have called their parents indicating as such, thus causing parents to call and come to the High School to get their kids. Please contact us if you have concerns or "hear" something! We do not want to create mass hysteria!" Williams posted just after noon.

Valparaiso Schools Superintendent Mike Berta said people who enjoy creating chaos and disruption are taking advantage of incidents like these to fuel rumors.

"I just came from both middle schools and the high school and rumors are rampant," said Berta on Thursday morning.

"Educators are working very carefully and closely with the Valparaiso Police Department to see if there is any validity to them," Berta said. He added procedures are operating on a normal basis at Valparaiso schools, there has been additional police presence at each building since Monday and there will be additional presence Thursday and Friday.

Berta said he activated the district's all-call system Tuesday following the Sandy Hook crisis. Another message to parents Thursday night reiterated that no credible threat had been received, but police would maintain a high profile in schools Friday. He encouraged parents to maintain their normal routines and to talk to their children about the dangers of spreading rumors. 

Representatives from the School Town of Munster and the Munster Police Department met Wednesday to review the district's security policy, according to a news release issued by the school district Thursday.

The review validated the school's safety plan, but the district is immediately canceling open lunch at the school buildings. Under open lunch, parents and relatives could enter buildings to dine with students. That will no longer happen, according to the release. In addition, parents picking up students during the school day will no longer be allowed to enter the building without prior approval.

Rumors

Porter County Sheriff David Lain said Thursday the origins of the rumors were not clear, but that no credible threat was received by police or school officials. He believes rumors were embellished every time they were repeated making the threats seem real.

Despite an actual threat, he said his department always errs on the side of caution, which meant putting extra officers in and around the schools in the unincorporated areas of Porter County. "It's our job to allay fears," Lain said.

"Parents are frustrated that they can't be around the school," Laid said, "but we can be."

Lain said the instantaneous nature of social media is good and bad. Information can be spread very quickly, but that includes erroneous information.

"Everyone becomes a disseminator of news," Lain said.

Times staff writer Lindsay Machak contributed to this report.

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