As we prepare for National School Walkout Day, it is important for our stakeholders to understand the consequences of posting (and reposting or sharing) threats on social media – even if you didn’t originally create it.
Since Friday, February 23, Atlanta Public Schools and other metro area school districts have seen a spike in threats of violence against our schools made on social media. Many believe that these threats are occurring in the wake of the tragic school shooting earlier this month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida for a host of reasons.
The safety and security of our students and staff is our top priority. We take every threat very seriously and we investigate each one in coordination with the Atlanta Police Department Homeland Security Unit, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigations Joint Terrorism Task Force, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, our APS Police Department, social media platform companies, and others.
The posting or reposting of threats of violence against schools on social media is against federal and state law and these actions may be punishable with jail time, fines or both.
Simply put, it is a crime to post and transmit information related to terroristic acts. Specifically, the law (O.C.G.A. 16-11-37.1) states:
“Dissemination of information relating to terroristic acts – It shall be unlawful for any person knowingly to furnish or disseminate through a computer or computer network any picture, photograph, drawing, or similar visual representation or verbal description of any information designed to encourage, solicit, or otherwise promote terroristic acts as defined in Code Section 16-11-37. Any person convicted for violation of this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature; provided, however, that if such act is in violation of paragraph (1) of subsection (d) of Code Section 16-11-37, the person convicted shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years or by a fine not to exceed $100,000.00 or both.”
While we believe the felony upgrade may not applicable to the recent social media threats against school districts under Georgia law, punishment for the misdemeanor is a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment of one to 10 years. Even though our APS Police Department may sometimes prefer to file juvenile charges in lieu of the court taking additional action, all of the prosecutorial discretion actually rests with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Posting threats against schools on social media is a federal matter and we are not able to remove it from their jurisdiction.
It is critically important for parents to have a conversation with their children about the seriousness of posting or sharing these threats through social media and review the potential consequences which will start with a suspension from APS and go from there.
As a result of our vigorous investigations into this matter, I am relieved to tell you that APS has identified some students involved in these actions. Appropriate disciplinary measures are being considered and then implemented. We will continue to investigate the threats to find all the original sources, but be forewarned that sharing also has consequence. It breaks my heart to see our young children making bad choices, especially given the severity of the consequences and legal actions that may be levied.
Parents and caregivers must get involved and be vigilant about what their children are posting or reposting on social media. A moment of immaturity for our students can result in significant, long-lasting penalties that may stay on their record for as long as the law deems appropriate.
According to a 2017 study conducted by the Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center for Public Affairs Research found that Instagram and Snapchat have surpassed Facebook as the most popular social media platforms among teens ages 13-17: 76% prefer Instagram, while 75% prefer Snapchat, followed by Facebook (66%) and Twitter (47%).
In a Washington Post story published in January 2018, teens talk candidly about what they wish their parents knew about social media. Here’s a highlight of what teens interviewed said:
- “When you take away one device at night, you might not realize how many devices we still have with us.”
- “Many of us have a fake Instagram account.”
- “If we are passionate or angry about something, we take it to social media.”
In addition, according to the latest Common Sense Media Census on Media Use by Tweens and Teens, not all parents know what happens on their children’s social media platforms. Here’s the percent of teens who say their parents know about what they do on social media:
- 32% say a lot
- 32% say some
- 27% say only a little
- 9% say nothing
- 5% not sure
While there are great benefits to our young people using technology to express themselves, there are just as many pitfalls. In terms of our responsibility as adults, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says it best on their website:
“Ultimately, social media becomes a tool or risk for teen’s health based on how they use it, which is in turn shaped by the guidance they get from caring adults.”
HHS also provides a number of resources to help parents set boundaries for their children on social media use. Click here to learn more.
As caring adults, it’s our collective responsibility to guide our young people and intervene before it’s too late. Please talk to your children and reiterate that there are severe disciplinary and legal consequences for posting or reposting threats of violence against schools on social media. School safety is everyone’s business, and I ask for your continued help in making our schools safe.
If you have any information about these threats, please call Crime Stoppers at 404-577-8477. Tips can be reported anonymously. Also, we appreciate the fact many of our students tried to warn us about the threats, however, they did so by reposting the threats. Remember, reposting is illegal, too!
In addition to contacting Crime Stoppers, you can report any threats of violence against schools that you see on social media by direct messaging us through our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram social media channels at @apsupdate and/or email the Atlanta Public Schools Safety and Security Department at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t share or repost threats on your account which will continue to circulate the threat and expose you or your child to serious consequences.