What started off as a discussion in a Hayward classroom on Monday, Dec. 13, and a reported comment made a year ago, evolved into a threat circulating over social media the following day. Then Tuesday morning, Dec. 14, a photo of a handgun on social media was the final straw for some parents who pulled their kids out of school, in spite of a heavy presence of law enforcement in the schools.
Then just a few days later, on Friday, Dec 17, law enforcement again were present around Hayward and other county school districts because of a national threat to schools posted on the social medium TikTok.
In both occurrences law enforcement and school officials responded out of abundance of caution, even though there was no substantive evidence to substantiate a threat.
When school shootings crowd the headlines, such as the recent shooting in Oxford, Michigan, where a 15-year-boy brought a pistol to school and killed four classmates, threats have to be taken seriously because no one wants to be responsible for missing red flags and allowing another tragedy to unfold.
But the other side of the equation is law enforcement officers are spending considerable hours chasing down supposed threats that turn out to be rumors that evolve from misunderstanding, miscommunication and possible deliberate attempts to stir controversy over social media.
Hayward Police Chief Joel Clapero said he understands social media can be a great way to raise awareness quickly, and might even be a deterrent to a possible school shooting, but he would prefer that those with concerns, either students or parents, talk directly to school officials or law enforcement or both to investigate whether threats are credible or whether, as in the situations last week, they stem from unsubstantiated claims.
Around 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13, an officer from the Hayward Police Department received a complaint from a concerned citizen and a school administrator of posts on social media about a student who would come to school the next day and “shoot it up.” Police officers began to investigate and spoke to five or six students. The officers concluded there had been a class discussion that day about the school shooting in Oxford and one of the students mentioned that a year ago another student, allegedly, made a comment about “shooting up the school.”
Chief Clapero said that during the investigation he learned the school administration had investigated the comment a year ago and did not find the threat credible. When Clapero talked to the student who allegedly made the comment, the student denied making any threat to the school and added his comments from the year before had been misinterpreted.
But somehow the discussion from the classroom evolved into a serious concern the following day.
“As far as we can tell, no one in the classroom on Monday (Dec. 13) said anything about a student bringing a gun to school the following day, but apparently someone interpreted the conversation in the classroom that this (a school shooting) is happening tomorrow,” Clapero said.
Overnight it was concluded there was no credible threat to the schools, but Clapero decided on Tuesday, the following day, to deploy a couple of officers at each school just to be safe. City of Hayward police officers were assisted by Sawyer County deputies to monitor the schools.
“We wanted to calm people down because we did (get) a lot of calls overnight and people were concerned about sending their kids to school,” he said.
Supt. Craig Olson said some parents who were not too concerned about the social media posts on Monday night became concerned when they dropped their kids off at school Tuesday morning and noticed the police.
“We had the police there to reassure people, but some chose to see it as validating concerns over social media,” Olson said.
And just when it appeared the officers had addressed the fears being expressed over social media, around 9 a.m., a photo taken from the social medium Snap Chat appeared of a handgun on the floor of what appeared to be a bathroom. The sharing of that image stirred more concerns.
“The photo was being shared mostly amongst students, and I think they started sharing it with parents,” Clapero said. “It was a handgun in what looked like a bathroom, like a washroom of a commercial-type building, the kind of floor you might see in a business or school, and somehow that turned into that this was in the Hayward school and many assumed it was the high school.”
Olson said he was preparing to release a statement about the previous night’s investigation to relieve concerns when a student brought a photo of the handgun to administrators that had also been circulated by students.
Law enforcement asked school janitors if the tile on the floor in the photo matched any bathrooms in the schools. The answer was no.
However, that photo was the final straw for many parents, who pulled their kids from school.
Olson said he delayed sending out a statement until the photo could be investigated. It turned out the image being circulated came from an incident the week before in Utah.
Clapero believes a student found the photo over the internet and began sharing it on social media. Then other students shared it and eventually parents were seeing the image. Officers talked to 10 to 15 students and to several parents of the students.
“We talked to a bunch of kids, but we were never really able to ascertain who began sharing the photo,” said Clapero, “and when we asked why they were sharing they said they thought it pertained to Hayward. They couldn’t really give us a good reason why they posted it instead of coming to a school administrator or law enforcement, but once they started sharing it there was no stopping it.”
He added, “It ended up just being a hoax, but I think most people were posting in good faith thinking there really was an issue.”
Olson said it appears the concern over what was said in class on Dec. 13 evolved through miscommunication, from one person talking to another and not fully understanding what had been said. But he believes whoever began sharing the photo of the handgun on Dec. 14 did that deliberately to stir up concerns.
Clapero said it was good that parents called and he doesn’t regret investigating possible threats, but also feels troubled that what turned out to be false information stirred up so much concern over social media.
“We appreciate the information we got, but there has to be a better way to address concerns,” he said. “We told students to talk to parents, talk to school administrators, talk to law enforcement instead of putting stuff on social media without knowing for sure if it is true and then it blows up. And obviously if the threat is credible we are going to talk to school officials and at a minimum ask that they lockdown, if it is really credible, or not have school that day. But never during our investigation, from Monday and Tuesday, led us to believe that there was a credible threat. There was just nothing there to point to any threat to the community.”
Olson mirrors Clapper’s sentiments. “We’re very lucky in this community that law enforcement and the school district staff take every one of these, even rumored threats, very seriously,” he said, “but social media is going to do what social media does. We are not going to put out any statements on anything until it’s factual and accurate.”
The Sawyer County Record posted a question on Facebook that included a description of the “unnecessary burden” created for law enforcement chasing down social media rumors. One reader took offense with the description and said officers have an obligation to investigate.
Clapero agrees officers do have an obligation to investigate, but he also says it does create a burden for local law enforcement agencies that are stretched thin with not a lot of officers available.
“We have seven officers for the city providing seven-day-a-week service with one officer always on duty,” he said. “We were involved with this investigation from 8 p.m. Monday night to 1 p.m. Tuesday and we had sheriff’s deputies helping us because we were taking this seriously.”
One criticism lodged over the incident is why didn’t the school or city police post something sooner to advise that there was no credible threat. Clapero said neither the school nor law enforcement wanted to post any comments until the investigation was complete.
“We realized there were people concerned because they didn’t get enough information as quickly as they would have liked, but I was out investigating and interviewing kids,” he said. “I don’t have a press officer, so am I going to continue interviewing kids or stop and write something down?”
Overall, Olson said he is proud of the students and parents who were calling in with information they were finding and hearing over social media because they were being proactive. And he wants to assure the public if there had been a credible threat the schools would have either been locked down or classes would have been canceled.
“We are going to do everything we can to keep our kids safe,” Olson said. “What we can’t control is what others put out over social media.”