Internet-Fueled Panic Again Empties School

Published 10:11 am Thursday, March 2, 2017

Here’s further evidence that life is like a comic strip: Last week in the strip “Non Sequitor” found in the daily newspapers, a weird little girl was so eager for a snow day from school that she posted snow pictures on her social media site. Her photos were recirculated so many times by her friends — who all believed the photos were real — that school was cancelled … even though there was no actual snow outside.

Meanwhile, West Forsyth High had to abandon education on Friday because so many students and their parents panicked over an Internet posting about a potential shooting at the school.

The original source and what was actually posted are still undetermined, but credibility is often ignored when it comes to rumors and our children.

Forsyth deputies were out in force Friday morning at the school, but that offered little comfort.

The wildfire of a rumor spread as it was re-posted so many times to so many people that parents rushed to school to pick up their children, and the parking lots quickly emptied. The line of cars snaked around the West parking lot at 10 a.m. as worried parents responded.

A similar panic happened about four years ago at West.

Again, school officials had few options as they allowed students to go home if they felt unsafe.

“Not everything on social media is true,” said school spokesman Brent Campbell. He answered reporters’ questions on the West campus as the exodus proceeded. The confusion of the rumor and the various social media sites made it hard to detect who started it.

Some 10 years ago, Davie County High had a panic before social media became so prevalent.

That panic was the result of a racially-tinged spat between two boys. One vowed that a Mexican hit squad would rumble into Mocksville to avenge his honor the next day.

My middle son was a freshman then, and the rumors were spread the old fashioned way: By telephone. None of his frightened friends were going to school the next day, and he begged to stay home, too.

I refused and promised to deliver him personally to the schoolhouse door. I suggested that mafia hit squads don’t usually avenge a name-calling episode at high school. The threat was nothing more than a boy’s big talk.

My son didn’t buy my logic.

“Don’t you love me?” he wailed in an Oscar-worthy performance. “I will die!”

He didn’t.

Maybe 600 of 1,800 students went to school that day.  Deputies encircled the school. West Forsyth, similarly, was left with a small fraction of students who either vowed to persevere — or didn’t have an early ride home.

My son survived. In fact, he bounced in the door that evening declaring it was his best day of school ever. The kids who braved the rumors had made a mockery of the panic, and it was an all-day celebration of their bravery. He thanked me for sending him.

Math, English and science were the victims on Friday. The students didn’t learn much about their assigned subjects, but they did get an education in how fast rumors can travel in this always-connected age and how panic can seize the day.

But there was no snow.

• • • • •

And now for the signs of spring …

I saw my first carpenter bee buzzing the deck at home last week, and in Raleigh on Saturday I spotted a lone iris in full bloom.

We have been visiting colleges with my youngest son, and the schools tend to put their best assets on display. At N.C. State, our student tour guide heavily promoted the school’s own ice cream made from the milk of State cows. It was wonderful.

– Dwight Sparks