Upper Valley schools affected by TikTok meme alleging threats

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/17/2021 12:34:10 PM
Modified: 12/17/2021 7:30:19 PM

Schools across the Upper Valley closed or in many cases allowed excused absences on Friday in response to rumors of social media posts encouraging students to threaten to shoot up or bomb their schools.

TikTok officials said they had “not found evidence of such threats originating or spreading via TikTok,” but that users were discussing the matter.

“We’ve exhaustively searched for content that promotes violence at schools today, but have still found nothing,” TikTok said late Friday morning on Twitter. “What we find are videos discussing this rumor and warning others to stay safe.”

As a result, districts across the country, including the Upper Valley, were on higher alert.

In a Thursday letter to the Mascoma community — which includes two elementary schools in addition to middle and high schools — Superintendent Amanda Isabelle wrote that children who stayed home Friday would be given an excused absence.

“We have taken this threat seriously and are working with building level administrators and all our local police departments to continue to keep our schools safe for our students,” Isabelle wrote. She added that there were no direct threats made against any Mascoma schools.

Just over half of all Mascoma students attended school Friday, Isabelle said, with the highest absentee rate at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan. Police officers visited each of the four schools throughout the day and no threats or other issues were reported. A vaccination clinic at Indian River Middle School went on as planned. The day will count as a full school day and children who were not there will get an excused absence, the same as if their parents called them in sick.

“I wanted people to feel comfortable making a choice. I didn’t want them to feel like their child would be penalized,” Isabelle said, adding that the mental health of students was also a concern. “We didn’t want kids to feel like they were forced into school and feel like they were afraid.”

Isabelle said that if any schools in the district received a direct threat, she would have closed them for the day. What made the TikTok posts most concerning, she said, was how general and vague they were.

“That’s just over the top, just in my opinion, to spread mass fear and panic,” Isabelle said. “Even with social media you can get the threats, but you’re able to find who did it but here we have no idea who did it, who they were targeting, what they were upset about. In general that’s just overwhelming.”

Students in the Newport district were allowed excused absences Friday and there was an increased police presence at all schools, Superintendent Brendan Minnihan wrote in an email. He said that, while he did not know the percentages “there were a lot of student absences.”

The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union also allowed excused absences on Friday, Superintendent David Baker said in an email. That resulted in an absentee rate of around 25%, which is high for the district.

“We sent an alert home (Thursday) and our police departments are stepping up their presence,” Baker wrote.

In a weekly Thursday update letter emailed to the Lebanon school community, Superintendent Joanne Roberts acknowledged that the district was aware of the concern about threats on TikTok and that, while no direct threats were made to schools in the Lebanon district, the Lebanon Police Department would have “an increased presence” at schools Friday.

“There is zero tolerance for these types of actions and any threat made to our schools will be met with serious consequences,” Roberts wrote. “We ask students and families to report anything that is of concern to your school principal or directly to the Lebanon Police Department so they can be investigated. As it relates to violent threats against our schools, we rely on the Police Department to perform the investigations.”

That increased police presence was welcome for Joshua Flanders, a Lebanon resident and former School Board candidate whose son is a fourth grader in the district. When his wife dropped their son off Friday, they were greeted by his school’s principal, a police officer and two teachers. The two teachers are regularly at the drop-off site.

“The added presence of school-level leadership along with the Lebanon Police Department put us at ease as we sent our child to school today,” Flanders said.

Sending their son to school was a last-minute decision. Thursday night, Flanders texted with family, friends and others who are part of the Lebanon school district community about whether or not to send their children to school. He and his wife decided at 7:40 a.m. Friday to send their son.

“There’s a lot of tension amongst parents today,” he said.

Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi sent out an email to the school community Thursday addressing the TikTok posts and said the district has been in touch with the Hartford Police Department about it.

“While we do not believe the threat to be credible, we are closely monitoring the situation and taking it seriously,” DeBalsi wrote.

He did not mention if any school absences would be excused. DeBalsi ended the message by encouraging parents to monitor their children’s social media use.

“If you or your child become aware of any potential threat posted to social media or anywhere else, please notify a school staff member or trusted adult right away,” he wrote.

Acting Hartford Police Chief Bob Cormier said officers did extra patrols at the district’s schools. There were no direct threats made to Hartford schools.

“Without additional information, that would be the standard practice for that type of threat,” Cormier said. “If we had more specific information, then we might meet with the school and make suggestions about additional precautions, but we haven’t had anything else that would suggest that we needed that.”

Messages left for DeBalsi and Roberts inquiring about absentee rates on Friday were not returned.

Classes were canceled at Claremont Middle School and Stevens High School. Superintendent Michael Tempesta sent a text to the school community announcing the decision late Thursday, which he said was made in response to “new information specific” to Claremont schools. School officials are working with Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase to investigate.

It is not the first time posts on TikTok have caused concerns among district officials and parents. In September, Newport school officials sent out a notice to parents with students at Newport Middle and High School about damage that had been done to multiple bathrooms as part of the “Devious Licks” trend, which encouraged students to damage school property. Students damaged toilets, plumbing, and soap and paper towel dispensers, which resulted in bathrooms being closed for repairs.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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