Social media in the spotlight following La Jolla High School threat: Campus fence and new info system forthcoming

Parents, teachers and administrators are still catching their breath following a threat that was carried out against La Jolla High School two weeks ago. Reeling from misinformation that was circulated via social media and the uncontrollability with which it spread, the group discussed ways to improve safety and communication during the March 15 La Jolla Cluster Association (LJCA) meeting at Muirlands Middle School.

On hand to answer questions were School Police Sgt. Ivan Picazo and Muirlands Middle School Officer Brandon Noyes, and San Diego Police Department Lt. Steve Waldheim.

Following threats made verbally and on social media, police arrested a 15-year-old male student before any violent action could occur, the morning of March 9. He was charged with “criminal threats” against the school

Reports started coming in two days prior (March 7) that the student had made some alarming statements, and a letter went out to parents from Principal Charles Podhorsky on March 8, acknowledging the situation, and stating that the threat was deemed “not credible.”

However, the letter prompted family discussions at home and additional calls to the San Diego Police Department with more information came forward. By 4:30 a.m. Friday morning, police had obtained enough evidence to arrest the student for making criminal threats.

LJCA president John May said he spent an hour on the phone with parents after the letter went out, and PTSA president Fran Shimp held up eight fingers, suggesting she spent eight hours on the phone with concerned parents.

“I did not understand the extent to which the middle school and high school were linked and sharing information on social media,” May said. “It was like wildfire. One of the things I learned from this incident, is nothing can keep up with the speed of teenage social media.”

Podhorsky added that he was “up until 1 or 2 in the morning” responding to e-mails and “was on the phone with police at 4 in the morning.”

Reflecting on the benefit of having one centralized source of information, rather than relying on a combination of word-of-mouth, social media and administrative statements, Cluster members suggested better ways to streamline school information via class-based communications apps, school-wide texts, all-school meetings, etc.

In addition to communication improvements, Podhorsky said fences would be installed at the school to create a single point of entry. A date for the installation is not known.

Social media discipline

Perhaps more importantly, law enforcement agents emphasized the importance of talking with teens and pre-teens about the power of social media.

“Social media discipline and etiquette is key,” said Sgt. Picazo. “When students see something (dangerous) on social media, they immediately want to share it or show it to their friends. What they need to do is show it to a parent, an administrator or the police.”

In the event the posting is on a platform such as SnapChat (which automatically deletes a sent message once it’s been viewed or expired), he advises taking a screen capture of the post. Similarly, smartphone-users can take screen captures of posts on photo-sharing platform Instagram.

“Whatever media source your teens are using, encourage them to share it with you, not their friends,” Picazo said.

Parents also asked officers to speak to students while the subject is fresh in their minds and explain the consequences of social media and that making threats is a crime, to which Picazo said: “I’m not a proponent of scaring, I prefer to inform. We need to inform our kids that there are consequences, serious consequences, to this. Someone making a threat is not required to have a weapon or carry anything out to be charged with making a criminal threat.”

Since the shooting in Parkland, Florida, he added there have been 47 threats reported in San Diego Unified School District.

A resource for students to report a threat is the Students Speaking Out tip line: studentsspeakingout.org or (888) 580-8477. (Tips can be reported anonymously.)

‘Not Credible’

Another point of misunderstanding was the letter that went out to parents explaining that the threat was unsubstantiated or “not credible.”

Shimp said her experience was that parents heard not credible and translated that to not made and that there was confusion when the student was later arrested.

Picazo explained: “The difference between substantiated and unsubstantiated (aka credible or not credible) is when we un-substantiate something … it means we got the report, looked into it, we spoke to the minor, we know what their mental status was — were they angry, were they joking — we’ve been to their house and talking to the parents.

“We ask if there are firearms in the house and/or of the students have access to them. It doesn’t mean something wasn’t said.”

He added: “More often than not, the student thinks it’s funny or says something in passion.”

May commented: “It may not have been credible, but it was serious.”

During the meeting, parents also asked about the protocol for an active-shooter situation, and how lockdown drills and emergency response is changing.

In other Cluster news:

New Muirlands principal: Attendees were updated on the pending search process for a new principal for Muirlands Middle School. Current pricipal Harlan Klein will transition to The Bishop’s School this fall.

Area Superintendent Mitzi Merino explained the job posting will be online April 1-10. During that time, the District will accept suggestions for those who are “strong leaders” within and outside the community, and ask them to apply.

“All area superintendents will interview any potential candidate … I will also meet with school staff and parents for input for what they are looking for in their next leader,” she said.

Around April 18, there will be a community panel interview (comprised of parents, teachers, administrative staff and others elected from within the school).

“If there is one or more strong candidate, the community panel will make a recommendation to the Superintendent, who makes the final decision,” Merino said.

If no appointee is selected by the end of this process, it repeats starting May 1.

However, Merino said: “I’ve already heard of interested candidates that have reached out and expressed interest in applying.”

The new principal would start the job July 1.

La Jolla Cluster Association next meets 4:15 p.m. Thursday, April 19 at Muirlands Middle School, 1056 Nautilus St. lajollacluster.com

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