Cover: Developing Practical Responses to Social Media Threats Against K–12 Schools

Developing Practical Responses to Social Media Threats Against K–12 Schools

An Overview of Trends, Challenges, and Current Approaches

Published Apr 10, 2024

by Pauline Moore, Brian A. Jackson, Jennifer T. Leschitz, Nazia Wolters, Thomas Goode, Melissa Kay Diliberti, Phoebe Felicia Pham

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Research Questions

  1. What can K–12 schools do to mitigate the impact of social media–based threats?
  2. What considerations are involved in deciding how to respond to a threat?
  3. How can schools best coordinate with law enforcement and other partners in both assessing the credibility of a threat and determining an appropriate response?

Shooting events and threats of shootings have come to shape the educational environment of many schools across the United States in recent years. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of threats alone rose by 60 percent, and most of these threats were made anonymously on various social media platforms commonly used by youth. While the overwhelming majority of these threats are meant to be jokes or to create havoc across a school or district, the resources that schools and law enforcement partners must devote to investigating and tracking down the source of each threat are significant. The resulting lockouts, lockdowns, and school cancelations that schools are often forced to implement have a severe emotional toll on students, teachers, and school staff.

Seeking to shed additional light on how K–12 schools in the United States are being targeted by social media–based threats, the authors of this report examine what schools are doing to investigate each threat's credibility, ensure the safety of their communities, and work with local and other partners in these areas. To this end, they conducted a literature review to identify existing practices for assessing and responding to such threats, analyzed over 1,000 news reports about threats from 2012 to 2022 to identify trends, and interviewed more than 60 K–12 stakeholders representing 17 school districts in 12 U.S. states about the challenges these threats pose and the decisionmaking processes and active steps they take to respond to them.

Key Findings

  • When responding to a threat, schools must balance the risk that a threat might be credible with the trauma and disruption that repeated responses to hoax threats induce. One way to strike this balance is to work closely with law enforcement partners to identify less overt response options that start at a lower intensity but can be scaled up rapidly if necessary as the threat investigation process proceeds.
  • Habituating students and school staff to certain response measures can potentially alleviate the fear and trauma that they might otherwise cause during threat and other emergencies.
  • Establishing a strong reporting culture in which students, parents, and others immediately report threats when they become aware of them can give decisionmakers more time to make critical response decisions.
  • The lack of standard nationwide or even statewide protocols for responding to social media–based threats exacerbates the significant challenges that schools face in this area.
  • The potential consequences of threat-making, even when threats are meant to be jokes, are not sufficiently emphasized to students and others in the community.
  • Sharing responsibilities allows for local education agencies and law enforcement personnel to draw on one another's unique capabilities during the threat investigation process and has been critical to making difficult and potentially high-stakes decisions in response to threats.

Recommendations

  • Approaches to navigating social media–based threats need to balance risks of both under- and over-response and integrate options for escalation as new information about a threat comes in.
  • Because investigating social media–based threats—particularly anonymous ones—needs to be a multidisciplinary effort involving school personnel, law enforcement, and other specialist partners, such as psychologists, agencies involved in a response should establish clear command and control protocols early on in the process.
  • Consensus practices need to be established nationwide for assessing the level of concern posed by threats, identifying pathways for balancing response and escalating responses to threats based on new information, coming to agreement on common vocabulary for response options that would be used by both schools and law enforcement (e.g., “secure hold”), and communicating with families and the broader community during a threat situation.
  • Schools should consider habituating students and staff to various emergency response measures (for instance during medical emergencies) in order to make certain types of responses to shooting threats (e.g., lockouts) less traumatizing.
  • New approaches for detecting and deterring social media–based threats, for instance by educating students, parents, and others about the consequences of threat-making, should be emphasized, while technological surveillance tools should be used with caution.

This research was conducted within the Infrastructure, Immigration, and Security Operations Program of the RAND Homeland Security Research Division.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.