Vague threats shared on TikTok that warned of nationwide school violence Friday — which authorities said were not credible — led New Jersey officials to reassure parents and boost security while the social media company said it found nothing threatening on its platform.
Rumors of the posts rattled nerves and forced officials to take precautionary steps in New Jersey as the day progressed with no major incidents reported. Along with the Garden State, officials in states across the country from Texas to Maryland said they increased security over the non-specific social media scare.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Friday it was monitoring the issue, but echoed local messages that there was no evidence of danger.
“DHS is aware of public reporting that suggests possible threats to schools on December 17, 2021. DHS does not have any information indicating any specific, credible threats to schools but recommends communities remain alert,” the department said in a statement.
Meanwhile, TikTok pushed back on reports about the viral messages, and the original source of the posts remained unclear. The social media platform said it was working with law enforcement agencies, but its search didn’t turn up threats.
“We handle even rumored threats with utmost seriousness, which is why we’re working with law enforcement to look into warnings about potential violence at schools even though we have not found evidence of such threats originating or spreading via TikTok,” the company said.
“Update: we’ve exhaustively searched for content that promotes violence at schools today, but have still found nothing. What we find are videos discussing this rumor and warning others to stay safe,” the company added.
TikTok further cited media reports for spreading claims of the false threats.
“Media reports have been widespread and based on rumors rather than facts, and we are deeply concerned that the proliferation of local media reports on an alleged trend that has not been found on the platform could end up inspiring real world harm,” TikTok said.
In New Jersey and across the nation, local news outlets largely reported statements about the non-credible threat released by law enforcement and school administrators.
The exact nature of the messages varied, according to reports from officials. In Nutley, a police spokesman said his department learned of “a viral TikTok/Snapchat social media post indicating a potential school shooting,” on Dec. 17. Other reports said the messages included a “challenge” for students to report false threats.
“There is NO credible information to suggest that there is any direct threat specific to the Nutley School System or any school located in New Jersey,” Nutley police Detective Tony Montanari wrote in an email.
“While today’s school-related social media threats proved to be non-credible, these events underscore the importance of situational awareness and identifying the signs of suspicious activity,” the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness said.
In South Jersey, Eastern Camden County Regional School District Schools Superintendent Robert Cloutier said the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning notified officials about the concerning posts on Thursday.
“A video has been making the rounds on Tik Tok warning of nationwide school shootings on December 17th along with hashtags #december172021, #december17th, and #december17,” Cloutier said in a message to parents.
“A similar threat has been noted on SnapChat. It can be expected these posts may migrate to other social media platforms or surface in messaging between students. Messages such as this current one, circulating in numerous states, typically cause confusion and heightened anxiety among the school community,” he said.
N.J. schools on high alert
In Cloutier’s district, he said additional police were deployed at the school.
“We are closely monitoring the disturbing threats apparently being made on TikTok and other platforms and are staying vigilant,” a spokesperson for Snap said in a statement Friday. “We treat threats of violence as urgently as possible, and if they occur, we immediately delete the content and proactively escalate the threat to law enforcement.”
As school officials were on high alert, a school lockdown system “experienced a malfunction shortly after school dismissal,” at Waldwick High School, according to borough police Lt. Thomas Dowling. The erroneous report led to a response from the Bergen County Regional SWAT team and nearby police departments.
On Thursday night, Gov. Phil Murphy said he spoke with top state law enforcement officials about the social media concern as reports of the supposed threat spread, but there was no known specific threats against New Jersey schools.
In recent weeks, school officials in New Jersey faced a range of separate, false social media threats following a deadly school shooting in Michigan. Police have charged students with making threats, including in New Brunswick this week.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said federal authorities were monitoring reports of the threats.
“We know a number of schools across the country are closing today, and some parents are keeping their children home,” Psaki tweeted.
“Today is another reminder of how many kids and parents live in fear of school shootings or violence. It is unacceptable,” she said.
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Noah Cohen may be reached at email@example.com.