Junior high student facing criminal charges for using social media to spread fake school threats

Feb 5, 2024, 8:12 PM | Updated: Feb 6, 2024, 7:53 am

SALT LAKE CITY — A junior high student is facing criminal charges after allegedly spreading fake school threats on social media this weekend.

According to the Granite School District, the female student is facing a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and could be removed from her school. KSL will not be disclosing the student’s school as the threat was determined to be a hoax.

District spokesperson Ben Horsley said school officials and Granite School District police were alerted to a post about a school shooting threat on social media on Saturday evening. Police spent hours tracking down the original post, made through an anonymous account, to determine its source and credibility. The threat was determined to be a rumor and unfounded.

In an email sent to parents and students, school officials said they were investigating “why the student posted the rumor.”

“This is becoming a huge draconian drag and force on schools and on law enforcement,” Horsley said. “In this particular case we probably have law enforcement and administrators spending upwards of ten hours in the middle of the night… to verify there was not a credible threat and ensure the safety of our students and staff. She made up something that was not true and it caused consternation… to our school [so this] is an appropriate disorderly conduct charge.”

Horsley said district officials take fake threats just as seriously as real scenarios.

A troubling trend

In the last year, the school district, one of the largest in the state with more than 67,000 students, said they’ve pursued criminal charges in at least a dozen cases; everything from a misdemeanor for spreading lies to felony charges related to terroristic threats where a student makes a direct threat.

“Unfortunately, we see this happening one to two times per week and it causes a great deal of harm,” Horsley said. “We need people to take this seriously, it is becoming an unending problem and literally everyone of our administrators probably spending at least 50% of their time dealing with unending drama of social media.”

In the vast majority of cases, Horsley said the threats were not made with real intentions, but the pranks come at a cost, making it harder to detect real threats by exhausting school resources.

“This is not a Granite district issue, talk to any school district, they will tell you they’re having the same difficulties and challenges with social media and abuse by students,” Horsley said.

In addition to criminal charges, students may also face suspension or permanent removal which means they are assigned to an alternative school program, depending on the situation.

Utah bill targets adults and students who swat public schools

Pushing for harsher punishment

According to Horsley, school districts are pushing for more serious consequences through the Utah Legislature. HB14, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Wilcox, D-Ogden, would require expelling or suspending students in some cases. It would also elevate a criminal offense to a second-degree felony if it is committed by an adult.  HB14 “School Threat Penalty Amendments” passed the House and is under consideration in the Senate.

Horsley said there is also another bill in the works that would hold parents accountable for their children’s actions in similar situations. It would follow a similar format to 2023’s SB224 Parental Liability Amendments.

“Our encouragement to parents is simply if you can’t monitor it (their social media activity), please don’t allow your child to have access to it,” Horsley said.

“We have seen multiple instances of fake threats being posted in a similar fashion. These threats cause needless panic and concern for our students and their families. We respectfully request that if you are unable to monitor your child’s smartphone and social media use, that you restrict access to it. Schools and law enforcement do NOT have the ability to monitor thousands of student’s social media accounts. This is the responsibility of the parent or guardian,”

Parents were advised in the email sent out on Sunday.

School officials say you can report rumors or threats on the SafeUT app.

You can also visit socialharms.utah.gov for tips and information on responsible social media use.

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Junior high student facing criminal charges for using social media to spread fake school threats