Schools across the country have reported a wave of potential threats to students' safety in the post-Parkland era.
But when social media threats and misinformation are added, as recent cases in Beaufort County schools highlight, additional burdens are placed on school administrators and law enforcement as they simultaneously investigate threats, determine their validity, communicate to the public and assuage parents' fears.
"Social media is what it is," Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. "Does this create problems from time to time? Yes, it does. (We) end up dealing with more rumor control than factual information."
Nearly a dozen threats were reported at Beaufort County public schools in the weeks following the deadly shooting Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Doughlas High School in Parkland, Fla. That rampage claimed 17 lives
A safety scare at River Ridge Academy three weeks ago is still under investigation by the Bluffton Police Department. Police determined a Snapchat post threatening students' safety was "unfounded" within hours of the posting March 26.
Catching whoever made the Snapchat post is proving to be more difficult. Snapchat is a more anonymous platform than Facebook and messages can disappear in 24 hours.
"It’s still an active investigation," police spokeswoman Joy Nelson wrote in an email Friday. "This one is going to take longer than most due to the sensitive nature."
Threats made to schools through social media typically mean multiple agencies become involved in the investigation, Nelson said. Bluffton investigators have reached out to some of those agencies, including the FBI's computer crimes unit, to track down the exact source of the threat.
"There are numerous moving pieces in this investigation," Nelson wrote. "It is an investigation the Bluffton Police Department is taking very seriously and one that investigators want to make sure is handled carefully and thoroughly."
Another recent case closed without charges filed, highlighting the legal limitations law enforcement agencies face when it comes to people posting false information. In late February, someone inaccurately posted to Facebook: “Hilton Head Island Middle School! Possible Shooter on the Grounds!”
The post had “NO TRUTH” to it and the subject responsible for the post was identified, located and interviewed, according to a Sheriff’s Office news release at the time.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Capt. Bob Bromage said Monday the post was likely linked to an incident the day before, when writing found on a girl’s bathroom wall advised students to skip school the next day because there would be “killings." The incident led to additional deputies stationed on the school's campus the next day.
Bromage said that the person, an adult female, was not charged because the actions did not rise to the level of disturbing schools because the post was taken down within 30 minutes. He encouraged the public to seek official sources of information.
South Carolina law is unclear on what charge applies when a threat against a school is scribbled on a wall or posted on social media. A Senate bill aimed at changing that specifies that threatening violence against a school is a misdemeanor that carries as much as three years in prison and fines up to $3,000.
South Carolina Police Chiefs Association executive director Ryan Alphin said his organization supports the bill, especially because individuals charged would be required to undergo a mental health evaluation.
"Unfortunately, it got stuck on the Senate floor last week and it doesn't look like it's going to pass," he said.