Posting A Threat

Posting A Threat

Recognizing and responding to threats of violence made via social media

In the wake of the Colorado movie theater shooting and noting the social media clues that appeared beforehand, college and university leaders are taking threats of violence posted to social media very seriously.

Case in point: Kent State University (Ohio) charged 19-year-old student William Koberna with a felony charge of inducing panic and a misdemeanor charge of aggravated menacing for tweeting, “I’m shooting up your school ASAP” and threats to the college president. Koberna’s tweets came five days after the Colorado massacre.

The judge in the case dropped both charges, upholding a new first-degree telecommunications harassment charge instead. Koberna did not own or have access to guns.

Still, the rise of social media threats as precursors to campus violence is keeping schools on their toes. With examples such as Jared Loughner, who killed six people in Tucson, Ariz. after posting a YouTube video threat against the Pima Community College, institutional officials cannot be too cautious. 

Potential security issues are certainly common enough, a recent KPMG survey of more than 100 campus leaders (mainly controllers and CFOs) found. When asked about various unforeseen problems that social media outlets used by college students can cause to the institution, 29 percent of respondents reported “online postings that compromise campus security” have been an issue. 

How should social media-based threats be addressed? By taking advantage of existing social media monitoring, training everyone on campus to recognize and report the threats, leveraging threat assessment teams and behavior intervention teams, and making ample use of law enforcement, campus judicial affairs, and the legal system, higher education can act on social media cues effectively.

Discovering Threats on Social Media

The best way to discover threats on social media is to count on those who see posts first, such as students who follow each other’s accounts. “It really comes down to making individuals, especially students, comfortable with reporting threats and behaviors they see there,” says Adam Colby, director of emergency management and campus safety at Eckerd College (Fla.)

Students communicate with roommates, residence assistants, and peers at other institutions, as well as counselors, parents, and professors, both online and off. Filling these channels with empathetic ears trained to pick up on these concerns is a good idea, experts say. “Any university should see itself as a network, broadening communications through that network as threats appear,” says Kenneth Ballom, dean of students at the University of Illinois, Champaign.

Robert M. Gatti, vice president and dean of student affairs at Otterbein University (Ohio), shares that people have alerted campus authorities to threats observed on social media platforms. For example, campus police received a call from an individual in California regarding an Otterbein student who was threatening to harm himself and posted this on his Facebook page. “We were able to do a well-being check on the student and get him the help needed,” Gatti says.

Appropriate channels for communicating about threats include the campus security authority or the most available person on campus responsible for forwarding reports to the proper contacts, such as the dean of students or the campus police, explains Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council of Education.

“Schools should have multiple reporting options, including email, other online means and anonymous reporting,” says attorney Alyssa Keehan, senior risk counsel at United Educators, an insurance company owned and governed by member colleges and other education organizations.

School marketing departments and athletics departments already watch social media for mentions of the school or its athletes for marketing purposes and to avoid smeared reputations and brand damage. These staff members can report threats they see in the course of these duties. “I am constantly watching what people say about San Diego State University on Twitter and other social media. If something catches my eye, I forward it to the appropriate people,” says Greg Block, director of media relations and new media at SDSU.

Campus Policies and Training

Policies for responding to social media-based threats should be noted in several different documents, including the student code of conduct, employee handbooks, and policy documents that address harassment, Title IX, or sexual misconduct, explains Colby.

And, Ballom says, officials should constantly address changes in mediums such as social media that might become avenues for concerning behavior and identify new policies that will address these.

‘A threat is really an assault such as used in assault and battery. The battery is the touching part. Assault is putting people in fear.’—Robert B. Smith, attorney,
DeMoura-Smith LLP

Train students about any activity that constitutes a concerning behavior so that if they see posts reflecting that, they know to report it, advises Keehan. Block takes that idea a step further, saying that anyone who works on campus should be trained to report a threat to campus police regardless of how it came in.

Experts also suggest using multidisciplinary threat assessment teams, ideally already set up on campus, and their models to assess threats delivered via social media. 

Assessing and Responding

At some point in a live assessment process, a threat assessment team will have to identify the party who posted the threat. That can be challenging, since social networks don’t generally require an actual name to register. “If it was a tweet, how do you identify the individual?” asks Colby. (In August, the Manhattan district attorney subpoenaed Twitter to hand over the identity of the person responsible for tweeting threats of violence similar to the Colorado theater tragedy at a Broadway theater. Twitter complied.)

When a student shows up on any assessment team member’s radar, in this case for a social media-based threat, that team member should be able to connect with others on the team as needed and quickly apply the threat assessment model to determine how valid the threat is and what action to take next. Such action can include involving the police and connecting the student to various resources, such as counseling, says Keehan.

The CUBIT Risk Rubric available from The National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NaBITA) describes increasing levels of risk of violence, including the deteriorating mental and behavioral health of the individual, nine steps toward actually taking violent action, and methods for addressing each level. The rubric springs from work that the Center for Aggression Management has done. “Read the social media-based threat and put it up against that rubric,” says W. Scott Lewis, president-elect of NaBITA.

Additionally, threat assessment team members must give the threat context. Has that person made other threats? Does he or she have mental health issues? “Use that for context,” says Lewis. And think about the threat content in terms of a game of Clue. If the threat details who the person is going to kill and when, where, and how they will do it, with what weapon and why, and if the person has access to this weapon, this is a serious threat, explains Lewis. Threats with few or no such details may not be as serious or imminent.

Also make analogies between the given case and other instances and, based on that, determine how severe the current situation really is and whether the proper action is behavior intervention or crisis response, says Lewis. Behavior intervention teams should intervene with students who exhibit alarming behaviors on social media even when no threat is imminent, says Ballom.

When the threat assessment team or a team member realizes a threat is valid and violence is imminent, it should be reported to the chief of police for the law enforcement entity with jurisdiction immediately. “Universities are moving toward rapid, real-time response,” says Dany Gaspar, digital and social media director at LEVICK, a communications consulting firm.

Communications about Threats

The Clery Act requires schools to issue timely warnings and emergency notifications. While there is some question as to whether and when timely warnings apply to threats people make via social media, it is clear that emergency notifications do apply. That is, there must be procedures to immediately notify the campus community when a “significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff” is confirmed.

“The current way of thinking is that an institution should give an emergency notification at the time it feels there is an imminent threat to people on campus,” says Meloy. Certainly, a threat the school deems legitimate and imminent in which someone broadcasts their intention on social media to commit a qualifying act of violence could trigger such a notification.

“People obligate colleges to communicate with students on their terms. In 2012, that means mobile social media,” says Max Goldberg of San Francisco-based Schmedia Media LLC. Campus leaders have an obligation to communicate with students through Twitter, text messaging, and other social media in an emergency. “Schools should use these communications tools to inform and empower their campus communities. If the shooter is in the library, the school should use all channels to notify people to stay away from the library and that they have called the police. The police should be using on-campus communications channels to coordinate efforts as these are better than what the police have,” says Goldberg.

College and university officials need to assure people that they take threats—including those presented in the domain of social media—seriously. Campus constituents need to know that if someone directs threats at a specific individual or group, there is a campus policy for preventing violence and the institution will uphold that policy, evaluate each threat, and respond effectively, says Keehan. If an individual who made a threat later is allowed on campus, the school administration’s plan to handle that return must also be communicated.

Free Speech Issues

Distinguishing between students who are exercising their right to free speech and those who are truly making threats is important. Schools should do this on a case-by-case basis. “When someone makes a direct threat to injure someone, the institution is within its rights to respond,” says Keehan.

“A threat is really an assault such as used in assault and battery. The battery is the touching part. Assault is putting people in fear,” says Robert B. Smith, an attorney for DeMoura-Smith LLP in Boston. The delivery mechanism of the threat, social media or otherwise, doesn’t matter. The threat is illegal and falls outside any first amendment protection.

“The purpose of the first amendment is to protect the right to speak openly about matters such as politics and religion,” he explains.
Regardless of free speech, school officials need to exercise good judgment and act when they believe a threat is genuine. “Which act would you rather defend, encroaching on free speech or that you didn’t protect someone’s child or loved one on campus?” asks Meloy.

The Case of Kent State’s Mr. Koberna

So did Kent State officials take the appropriate steps? “It appears that what Kent State University did was the smart thing to do,” says Meloy.

“If we had a credible or perceived threat, we would probably take similar action. It depends on whether it rises to meet the legal criteria. We would decide that later, but would get involved early,” says Captain Lamine Secka of the San Diego State University Police Department. “In California, we have a statute regarding criminal threats. It has to be a very specific threat to an individual. Beyond that, we don’t have a lot of options from a legal standpoint for cyber threats per se. We would rely heavily on the Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities,” the university’s judicial affairs office.

“It is a viable move or model to charge people based on the content of social media. Social media behavior should also be subject to the school’s code of conduct,” says Keehan. While laws vary by state and each state defines crimes differently, most states have laws outlined to protect people from threats that induce a reasonable fear of injury, says Keehan.

In cases like Koberna’s, schools should both follow legal options based on existing laws and bring in mental health providers and student judicial affairs and the residential education office that is responsible for educating students on how to get along with people, says Secka.

It will likely always be possible for threats of violence posted to social media to go unreported or undetected. But, when campus communities work together to uncover and report these assaults and to act to prevent violence from becoming a reality, everyone will feel more comforted and secure.


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