By Joe Beck
School officials in the Northern Shenandoah Valley struggled this week to cope with rumors spread through social media networks involving false threats to students and educators.
The most serious problem arose in Frederick County where several students were disciplined in connection with rumors suggesting an act of violence was imminent at a school Friday.
The rumors were spread on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, according to a letter sent home with middle and high school students Thursday.
Friday came and went with no credible evidence of a threat at any school, but Steve Edwards, coordinator of policy, records management and communications, said the rumors required school officials to respond to heightened tensions.
Edwards said schools were "very quiet" Friday, the last day before Christmas vacation, but absenteeism was running higher than usual in part because of increased fears about school safety fueled by the rumors. Edwards said illnesses and holiday travel plans were other factors keeping students out of school.
"I can't imagine why anyone would want to cause the type of disruptions these rumors have caused, but in the community it was obviously upsetting to students, school officials and the entire community, most unfortunately," Edwards said.
Edwards said the school officials kept fielding rumors of lockdowns at several schools throughout the week. There were no lockdowns, although the Frederick County Sheriff's Office did have extra officers in the schools this week, he said.
Edwards refused to reveal the name of the school where rumors of a threat were initially reported.
The rumors were also the subject of a regularly scheduled monthly meeting held Thursday among high school and middle school principals and representatives of the Sheriff's Office, Edwards said.
The letter sent to parents and signed by each student's school principal reads in part:
"In light of the events that occurred in Newton, Conn. last week, I want to reassure you that safety and security remain top priorities at all of our schools. Staff has devoted a great deal of time to thoroughly investigating all of the rumors that have been brought to our attention. Those students who are involved in creating and spreading the rumors are subject to disciplinary action."
Superintendent B. Keith Rowland of Shenandoah County Public Schools said he also noticed a rash of threats "being passed around on social media that included things that could happen."
Rowland said some of the dire rumors appeared linked to end of the world prophecies derived from interpretations of the Mayan calendar
"They certainly knew about it, and it makes them a little apprehensive because they don't understand it," Rowland said of some students.
Rowland also referred to the mass shooting in Newton and some incidents in Shenandoah County schools this week that may have contributed to the anxiety.
Rowland said students briefly left the Central High School building in Woodstock Thursday afternoon when a smoke machine used to generate special effects in the drama department malfunctioned and set off a fire alarm.
Buses were dispatched to provide the students with a place to stay dry during a heavy rain, but word soon began spreading that the school was being evacuated, Rowland said.
"In fact, we're just protecting our kids from the weather, and just making sure our kids were safe," Rowland said. "In normal times, it's not a big deal, but it got on Facebook pretty quick."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org