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When rumor, the Internet and school violence fears collide

A comment made by a student at a high school in small-town Pennsylvania spawned a rumor online and via text message that a fellow classmate was going to bring a gun to school. Police determined the information was a rumor, but it still had a big impact on the family whose son was falsely accused. WICU's Eva Mastromatteo reports.


“He’d be the type to bring a gun to school.”

These words – or something close – were allegedly uttered by a female student in a high school classroom last Friday in Girard, Pa., about one hour’s drive from Chardon, Ohio. The object of the comment was Austin Carner, a 17-year-old junior and outsider at the school who has had minor brushes with the law.

By Sunday night, those words had morphed via social media and text messages into an explicit threat that Carner was planning to come to Girard High School the next day – the one-week anniversary of the Chardon shooting in which three students died – with a gun.

Police went to his house Sunday afternoon, questioned him and searched his room, and school administrators fielded hundreds of phone calls from concerned parents on Monday. About half of Carner’s classmates decided not to risk it and either stayed home or left school early.

But when police left Carner’s house hours later, they weren’t toting weapons or leading the teen away in cuffs. They found nothing suspicious in their search and, after questioning Carner and his parents, decided that concerns that he was planning violence were false.

“It was a rumor run wild … that’s what social media does these days,” Girard School District Superintendent James Tracy told msnbc.com on Wednesday. “Nothing was actually said. … It’s like that old post office game, you know, where you tell a secret and by the 12th person it’s totally different. Magnify that times literally … thousands of people on social media, it really gets messed up.”

The cloud of suspicion that swept over Carner is the product of two strong currents sweeping through schools around the nation, experts say: heightened sensitivity over school violence and the impulse that leads teenagers and children to gossip or make insinuations about fellow students online without considering the real world consequences.

Carner’s mother, Yvette, said her son and daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, had hateful messages posted to their Facebook walls. They printed copies for authorities but by Monday afternoon the posters had removed their comments. Other parents even posted on social media sites about whether she and her husband had adequate parenting skills, she said.

Hannah Pierce, who penned supportive posts on Sarah’s Facebook wall, wrote early Monday: “Hey girl, I hope you're okay. and your family. I don't know if you've been reading lately, but you're [sic] brother is hated by ALL of Girard. I'm absolutely sick of it.”

Bullied, teased
School officials and police were in contact as soon as they learned of the supposed threat.

“We received a call that there was a gun threat, a kid was going to bring a gun to school on Monday and shoot the place up,” said local Police Chief Nicholas VanDamia. “The boy denied making any of those threats. We searched his room, we searched the house. There was no weapon nor was there anything available for him to use as a weapon. … There was never a real threat, it was all fictitious.”

Austin Carner was unaware of the firestorm erupting on social media over the weekend, since he was away doing community service. He only learned about it when the police showed up at his door.

Carner said he has been bullied since the family moved to Girard from Michigan in 2006, with students calling him “retarded” (he has a learning disability due to apraxia), “ugly” and “ginger” because of his red hair.

Partly because it had gotten so bad, that Monday was meant to be his last day at Girard. He was already in the process of transferring to an alternative education program for students with behavioral issues where his educational needs could be better addressed.

“School has been rough. I get picked on every day, you know, a lot,” he told msnbc.com. “Sometimes, I just don’t want to go.”

But the cruel teasing didn’t prepare him for the shocking posts he saw when he logged onto Facebook, which included many variations of this message: “I’ve heard you’re going to bring a gun to school and shoot everyone.”

Despite Ohio shooting, school violent deaths down

Tracy, the school superintendent, said school officials “always start off taking it (a threat) extremely seriously until you know. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.”

Though the Internet is a good teaching tool that young people respond well to, it created a “real problem” in this instance, Tracy said.

“Unfortunately, when … kids – and also adults – sit in front of the computer, they don’t think the responsibility is there because they’re not talking to somebody,” he added. “They’re putting it down on the screen and pushing a button. I think it becomes a little easier for people to say things they normally wouldn’t say.”

Tracy said the school’s principal disciplined two students – the girl who made the comment and a boy – for their interaction on Friday with Carner, who did not receive any sort of reprimand. The girl made an “off-the-wall comment,” though it’s not clear what role the boy played, Tracy said. (Attempts by msnbc.com to reach the pair were not successful).

“I think that caused them to get onto the social network and say certain things; and then other kids read it and then they added to it, and then pretty soon somebody else added to it,” he said.

Tracy said school officials don’t know how the girl’s initial comment was twisted by others into an explicit threat, but indicated the district would pursue charges – if the source can be determined – to send a clear message. 

“Some of the things that were out there were really outlandish,” he said, adding that word normally spreads fast in the borough of about 4,000, but “not this fast. This is even faster than the local news.”

Carner’s father, Tracy Carner, said his son was just trying to survive high school and he was not perfect – he got into a fight with some boys last summer who were harassing him. He said that after the boys beat Austin up, his son chased them with a utility knife, telling them never to touch him again. He later owned up to the incident, which was why he was doing community service, the elder Carner said. 

“In the game of real life, he’s become the victim,” said Carner, 51, who works in flooring construction. “And in general, the whole family is in jeopardy.”

Superintendent Tracy said an announcement was made Monday morning to students about the rumor and its consequences. He said the school will add lessons on cyberbullying to other programs it has introduced to stem bullying, including the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and Rachel’s Challenge.

'He's just not the same'
Schools around the nation are dealing with similar issues involving social media, said Dr. Melissa Reeves, a school psychologist and chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ Prepare School Crisis Prevention and Intervention Workgroup.

“What this school district is dealing with is what many school districts are trying to deal with and … often times the schools are the last ones to find out,” she said.

Reeves said her group was working with schools to train parents, students and staff about social media and cyberbullying as well as early warning signs of potential threats or suicidal behavior.

She recommended that districts have clear social media policies in place, including punishment for violators, and that schools and parents have access to social networking sites and maintain good collaboration with law enforcement so that tips can be quickly investigated and dispelled if they have no merit.

Many districts are trying to be proactive about school violence by creating anonymous phone lines, websites and text message drops where people can share tips about possible threats.

“School districts are definitely trying to problem-solve,” she said. “… The challenge is that the technology is ever-evolving and to be honest with you, we have a generation of adults that didn’t grow up with this and then we have kids that are growing up (with it), and the kids are more sophisticated than many of the adults.”

Facebook also has built ways to help minors have a safe experience online, including a “Social Reporting” tool that allows youths to contact the site or trusted adults about harassment or threatening content. The site works with law enforcement in some cases, too.

None of that is much comfort to Tracy Carner. He said he has contacted police about filing charges. He also is temporarily out of work because he felt that he had to stay home to help support his family in the aftermath of the incident.

But his wife Yvette said life was still difficult for the Carner family.

“We can’t go out in public without getting whispers and harassed,” she said Wednesday. “Austin went out today for a walk with his friends and this town has judged him even though it has been proven that he had nothing to do with it. People are calling him names, yelling things at him.

“… It’s really tough on Austin right now. He is very quiet,” she added. “He’s just not the same.”

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