Tates Creek High School 'hoax' case shows power, peril of social media, expert says

The Tates Creek complex includes the high school, right, the middle school, center, and the elementary school.
The Tates Creek complex includes the high school, right, the middle school, center, and the elementary school.

An incident at Tates Creek High School, in which more than half the students were absent or left class Monday because of a false threat, illustrates the power and potential perils of social media, schools officials and experts said Tuesday.

Superintendent Tom Shelton issued a statement calling the incident a "terrible social media hoax" that preyed "upon the fears of students and families."

Kakie Urch, an assistant professor of multimedia at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications, said it showed the ability of social media to spread information — right or wrong — almost instantly.

"In older methods of message spreading, one might have to speak with one's neighbor for 25 minutes across the backyard fence, and that person might have to talk to someone else for 25 minutes," Urch said. "But today, I can tell 1,200 of my best friends anything I want to in less than 15 seconds."

The incident involving Tates Creek High School resulted in a student at the school who is a juvenile and Bethany Marie Dowell, a former student, being charged with second-degree terroristic threatening, a felony.

Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts, who announced the arrests about 11:30 p.m. Monday, said police conducted a joint investigation with Fayette County Public Schools.

Dowell, 18, was charged for comments that investigators found on her social network account, police said. On Monday, a Facebook page that appeared to belong to Dowell had a picture of the police report and made several posts about being charged by police. Dowell posted a status update to clarify to her friends why Lexington police had charged her. The post said that "someone actually shooting the school is complete bs" and that Dowell also said — in jest, the message said — that someone was "gonna shoot up tchs? Ill help."

"I almost got arrested, but my mama talked them into not taking me to jail," the post said. "We couldn't get them to drop the charges tho, I'm officially a" felon.

Dowell, who attended Tates Creek but didn't graduate, was only cited. Roberts said officers have the right to exercise discretion and decide whether to arrest someone.

The juvenile, who has not been identified, also was charged with terroristic threatening for allegedly "setting up a fake social media account to cause panic and fear of school violence" after the original rumors, Roberts said in a statement.

According to a posting on the Fayette County Public Schools' Facebook page, the juvenile allegedly "used the name of another student to establish an elaborate social media hoax, including photos and threatening statements intended to scare the Tates Creek community."

Roberts confirmed Tuesday that some of the messages posted on social media included photos of assault rifles and other firearms. The pictures appeared to be "stock photographs" taken from the Internet, she said.

School Superintendent Tom Shelton said school officials received a tip that a Tates Creek student might be planning a violent act at the school. He said district personnel investigated and concluded that the student had never made a threat.

By Sunday, principal Sam Meaux sent an email to parents, saying the rumor was "unsubstantiated." But rumors of impending violence at Tates Creek continued on social media, even after Meaux's email.

Still, Roberts said police do not take these things — rumors on social media — lightly. The Tates Creek case comes at a time when school shootings in several states have left parents and children worried about school safety, and at a time when reports of Internet bullying have become almost commonplace.

"To you it may seem funny, but it's going to be taken very seriously by law enforcement and school authorities," Roberts said. "That's exactly what happened in this situation."

She called the case a "teaching moment for students and parents."

"Social media do not happen in a vacuum, and inflammatory comments and threats will always be taken seriously," she said. Police urge parents to monitor their children's social networking, and youngsters should be careful about what they post, she said.

In this case, the damage was far reaching — including to the reputation of the student who was targeted.

It also created a serious disruption at Tates Creek on Monday. Lexington police established a presence at the school.

According to the school district, final attendance figures showed that 987 Tates Creek students never went to class Monday or left school during the day. Tates Creek's total enrollment is 1,825.

Attendance returned to normal Tuesday, the district said.

Jon Akers, director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, said Tuesday that there have been similar isolated cases in the state in which rumors of school violence have "gone viral" through students texting on cellphones.

One such case occurred at Lexington's Henry Clay High School in December, when one-third of the student body was absent after rumors of possible violence at the school spread on social media. School officials called it a false rumor, although a 16-year-old student eventually was charged terroristic threatening.

Akers said Tuesday that he thought the charges filed in the Tates Creek case were appropriate. If the allegations are proven true, those involved "need to be held accountable," he said.

Urch, who teaches about multimedia and is a consultant on the subject, said many young social media users might not realize the potential of the communications tool.

"Social media often is viewed by young people as just their way of communicating with friends," she said. "But in fact it is a powerful platform, and it's a public platform."

Urch said the fact that the message got out of control during the Tates Creek incident shows "a social media message has a mind of its own."

"There are all kinds of nefarious possibilities, but I don't think that means social media is a bad thing," she said.

Urch said that training young children in the use of online devices "definitely is a parental responsibility." But she predicted that schools probably will have to take on a large part of that role.

"More and more, appropriate and safe use of social media will become part of early school curriculum," she said.

Shelton, a social user himself, agreed.

"The reason I use Twitter, Facebook and other social media is because I do try to model it for kids," he said. "I've said for a long time that if we as educators don't take an opportunity to teach kids the right way to use technology ... . It's part of their lives, and if we don't teach them who is going to?"

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader