By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
Last year ended in a concerning way for the educational community after threats against the safety of schools were spread through social media. This situation uncovered a deeper problem: Our children and teenagers are not alright.
These threats, which have mostly been started by children and teenagers within social media apps such as TikTok or Twitter, kept students, parents, teachers, staff, and authorities frightened during the last day of school on December 17 when messages about violent attacks that would take place that day at schools across the country, began circulating on TikTok.
Although the day unfolded relatively in calm on the local level, Miami-Dade County Public Schools had to increase police presence in school areas as a preventive measure.
But this wasn’t the only time the school district had to fight this issue in 2021. According to a press release from M-DCPS, from the beginning of the school year through December 7, Miami-Dade Schools Police Department investigated 40 school threats, all ruled not credible or hoaxes, and made six arrests.
This is a considerable number considering the levels of stress, anxiety, and absenteeism increase in the population, and the resources of the authorities that could well be used to protect schools from real dangers are depleted every time a school threat is sent, which refers to any message that speaks of possible aggression against life or the physical integrity of others in the classroom.
It’s for the above that the events on the first half of the school year left many questions in the air that are worth clarifying. The main one is, what is happening with children and teenagers in our community so that many of them become involved in these threats?
A cry for help
According to Edwin Lopez, Chief of Police for the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department, most of the school threats received last year were made by students.
The motivations behind this behavior vary, but one of them has to do with what students experienced during the pandemic. For Christi Fraga, Miami-Dade School Board representative for District 5, students are craving attention because isolation and the problems brought by the pandemic have increased their levels of anxiety and depression.
“We know that this is the source of the problem. We have just come out of a year in which many children were isolated, did not receive enough attention at home, or have not been able to interact socially as they wanted,” Fraga says.
This leads some youngsters to spread hoaxes because it makes them feel important. “Normally, they don’t say they’re going to do the damage, but rather that they heard someone will. It could be through a text message to a friend or by making a repost on social media.”
The problem with this is that those who spread a rumor are also liable and can get in trouble with the authorities even if the threat doesn’t come from them. That was precisely the case for a county student who last year shared a two-year-old post on social media alluding to a threat, resulting in his arrest.
But many students behave this way because they feel overwhelmed at school. “Some use social media as a way to deal with school stress. So if they don’t want to take an exam, for example, they send a threat, knowing this may result in them not having to take the exam after all,” says Chief Lopez.
In this sense, the absolute freedom of access to technology is playing against young people because although electronic devices are part of everyday life, they also have repercussions on basic skills.
“Teens are making little use of language. Now, they communicate more with emojis, acronyms or abbreviations without knowing that conventional written language creates neurological connections that help us develop more capacity to be mindful or empathetic,” says Erika Monroy, an educational and clinical psychologist specialized in emotional intelligence.
This, in addition to poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and little physical activity, is causing them to now be less thoughtful and focused, as well as diminishes their ability to respond to critical situations and control impulses such as beginning or sharing a threat from their cell phone.
On the other hand, this behavior is also driven by the fact that it is very common for households not to have boundaries or consequences regarding the use of technology or in everything else.
“People work two or three jobs, and children are at times unsupervised. So, then it comes the guilt of not being present long enough at home. The way in which many adults deal with that guilt is by saying yes to everything children ask for,” says Monroy.
In addition, there are still preconceptions around mental health illnesses in people’s minds, which is why some learn to live at home with children who suffer from depression or anxiety. “They normalize always feeling off, sad or stressed out when that’s not normal, and you have to go to therapy if you experience those feelings on a regular basis,” recommends the psychologist.
It’s a shared responsibility
Given the complexity of the issue, the intervention of the police, the school district, and, finally, of parents and caregivers is key to decrease these disruptive behaviors that add up stress in families and schools.
First of all, it should be mentioned that sending a school threat leaves the student scarred for life. “Children who make that decision cannot later return to a normal school or graduate with their friends and are left with a criminal record. This is not a joke but a serious crime. For this, all the extent of the law falls on them,” clarifies Christi Fraga.
So, what is a child to do when finding a threat to avoid becoming part of the problem? According to Fraga, the right thing to do is to call 911 and describe the threat. Another option is to contact the school board or the county schools police department at 305 995 COPS.
“Reposting or forwarding the threat to friends is not a good idea because it creates more panic and gives more power to the author of the message who wants attention and to disrupt the entire system,” advises Fraga.
On this matter, the role of adults is vital since they are the ones who must instruct minors on the proper use of technology. “We ask parents to monitor their children’s social networks and check their cell phones to ensure they are handling them appropriately. This would help mitigate some of the issues we are facing today,” says Chief Lopez.
In addition, he also recommends not allowing children to charge their phones in their rooms at night but rather in their parents’ rooms to eliminate the possibility of them having access to virtual environments during the hours they should spend sleeping.
On this regard, Erika Monroy says parents should be fully aware of what type of content children see online and when they do so. “We must not normalize them being hooked to social media all day long without boundaries or responsibilities or that they lack a proper nutrition or a good sleep.”
To avoid this, the recommendation is to make a family agreement that includes all house and school responsibilities in addition to rules about what is and isn’t allowed online and self-care routines. “Children must be raised under clear and appropriate boundaries and consequences with specific times for each task,” she adds.
It should be noted that the Police Department is working hard to mitigate the problem and to offer more tools to families. For one, both the police and school resource officers constantly monitor social media.
“Every public school in the county has a police officer, and there is an elite team of detectives who investigate social media cases around the clock. For this reason, our school district is one of the safest in the country,” adds Chief Lopez.
In addition, the M-DCPS Police Department has more than 100 mental health professionals specially trained to interact with students and teachers and handle difficult situations.
Also, from the Police Command Center at the main headquarters, more than 18,000 cameras are monitored in schools, while each school bus is tracked with GPS technology in order to react in a timely manner should an incident occurs, and there is a team of individuals trained to fight and act against a shooter, among other initiatives.
“We cannot guarantee that nothing will ever happen, but we can confirm we allocate all our resources to ensure the safety of our students and staff in schools,” states the Chief of Police.