Blog: The Educated Reporter

From Doomsday to Revolt, Guessing How to Keep Students Safe

Fears over the Mayan calendar doomsday myth and rumors of threats to student safety were enough to shut down 33 schools in Michigan Thursday, and districts across the country are expected to have increased security on campus today.

Concerns over the rumors, many of which spread rapidly via Twitter and Facebook, prompted investigations by police and school authorities from Maine to Washington state. No credible evidence of danger was found. There were a handful of student arrests in San Antonio, Texas, following allegations of teens making threats against their high school classmates or intentionally spreading false rumors that campuses would be attacked. But the investigations turned up no actual plots.

In Michigan, the rumors swirled so fiercely over the past few days that district officials decided it was better to just send students home early for the winter holiday break. In addition to fears about the Mayan apocalypse, there were also rumors of a supposed “armed student revolt,” officials at the half-dozen districts in Genesee County said. Students had been sharing messages about the supposed revolt online.

“It’s been really nerve-racking to be honest with you,” Grand Blanc schools superintendent Norm Abdella told Michigan Public Radio.

On the Genesee Intermediate School District website, the administration cited the intense emotion of the Sandy Hook tragedy as a factor in the decision to start the winter break early:

“Our communities are anxious, parents are concerned about the safety of their children, there are rumors that have multiplied as a result of social media, and there are threats within local districts that bring pause as to whether conducting classes would be appropriate. We have discussed information from local law enforcement, the realities of being able to investigate every threat, information related to district sensitivities, and our concerns about whether a normal instructional day could be achieved. Our conclusion is that canceling school is the appropriate thing to do.”

The rumor mill was also in high gear in schools across the country including North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In Lake County, Fla. the school district put out a statement that “contrary to rumors” classes would indeed be held today, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

As the Free Lance-Star reported in Spotsylvania, Penn., the local school district went so far as to post on its website “How to Talk to Children About Rumors of the World Ending,” directing parents to an online NASA resource that explained why the rumors had no merit.

In a number of districts, the rumors were rampant even before the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which claimed the lives of 20 young students and six adults. In the western Chicago suburbs, at least five districts investigated rumors of threats at high schools and found nothing to substantiate them, the Courier-News reported. However, the district’s administration still promised to have additional security on campus.

Student chatter about a purported threat at Mountain View High School in central Oregon was so intense last week that the administration of the sent out an electronic bulletin to reassure the community. Administrators and local police investigated the rumors – including those posted via social media – but turned up nothing, the Bend-La Pine School District said on its Facebook page.

It’s not unexpected that school communities are in a heightened state of anxiety given recent events, says Dr. Richard Shadick, a clinical psychologist and professor at Pace University in New York. Also not unexpected, from a psychological standpoint, is the sudden focus on obscure threats.

In fact, as Shaddick explained, what’s happening now is a key example of the coping mechanism known as “displacement.” It’s actually easier for people to be anxious about something less likely to happen – like the Mayans having accurately predicted the end of the world – than something that sadly is now a more realistic possibility, such as a school shooting.

“We’ve been through a number of end-of-the-world incidents, haven’t we,” Shadick says.

The decision to close schools early for the winter break is understandable, given that students aren’t the only ones who are probably anxious, Shadick says. For the teachers and administrators, “it’s easier to manage that anxiety if the kids aren’t around,” Shadick says. “You don’t have to worry about protecting them if they’re safe at home.”

But a more productive approach for students might have been to maintain the regular routine of attending school – and perhaps using some of that time to discuss and dispel the rumors, Shadick says. He added that “in the long run it will not only minimize the anxiety, but it’s also good modeling about how to manage one’s fears.”

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