A social media threat that resulted in a recent hold and secure at Newmarket’s Huron Heights Secondary School and a 14-year-old boy charged with uttering threats and public mischief signals a crackdown on such behaviour not only by police services locally, but across the country.
This was the second time in six months that a York Regional Police investigation of online threats against the local school or a student led to charges for the youth involved.
And, just this weekend, York police charged an 18-year-old Tommy Douglas Secondary School student in Woodbridge with conveying a false message in a social media post, York Regional Police Const. Laura Nicolle said.
It’s a situation that is playing out from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Vancouver Island to points in Ontario, including Simcoe County. In York Region, these types of incidents are on the rise, Nicolle said.
“They’re (youths) not grasping the concept of how serious this is, it’s a concern," Nicolle said. “It’s very easy for us to determine who these individuals are, we find out usually within a day.”
If convicted under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, for young people aged 12 to 17, punishments for public mischief and uttering threats can include probation, community service, and deferred custody and supervision, meaning the offender may be placed under “house arrest”, but permitted to attend school, counselling or a part-time job.
Often, the motive is a student hoping to get the school closed because of an upcoming test, Nicolle said. But the York force responds as if any threat is accurate and proceeds with the mindset of protecting staff and students.
In the Oct. 23 incident at Huron Heights, York police had a heavy presence there for the better part of the school day, even though it was determined by about 10 a.m. that there was “nothing of any safety concern located at the school”.
From a spike in online threats one month after the fatal February 2018 shooting of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla. — in which the Ontario Provincial Police detachments in Nottawasaga, Collingwood and Barrie charged five young people between 12 and 17 with uttering threats — to the charging of students at Huron Heights and Tommy Douglas high schools, lashing out online carries consequences.
York Region’s Bully Free Community Alliance co-founder Bessie Vlasis said that even with all the education that’s being done in the schools, many youth still believe they can be anonymous online.
“Sometimes kids react in a way that an adult wouldn’t because they’re still developing, their brains are still developing, and they don’t have the wisdom to handle certain situations,” Vlasis said. “When kids post things on social media, (it's because) they feel they’re not being heard, or that nothing is being done about their concerns. A lot of times they’ve been struggling with something in their lives, it could be at home, at school, or they could be bullied.”
Parents need to pay attention to what their child or youth is telling them, and have that conversation with the teacher or vice-principal so they can be aware and take action, she added, before little things become bigger things.
“Youth are disengaged and disenfranchised, they are not engaged enough,” said Vlassis. “They feel they are being taken for granted and that we don’t listen to what they have to say. We have to give them some type of outside release and engage them more in a face-to-face setting, not just social media all the time.”
But from students and school boards to parents and the police, social media is a top destination both for sharing information and finding out what’s going on — and everything in between.
Take the Oct. 23 hold-and-secure incident at Huron Heights, for example, and how that unfolded on Twitter within less than two hours.
In response to two concerned citizens who asked York police via Twitter what was happening at Huron Heights, York police replied at 8:47 a.m.: “We are at the school investigating a social media post. There have been no weapons seen at the school or any immediate safety concerns that we have found. At this stage it is a post only, however, we take these seriously & are seeking to find the person responsible.”
Then, at 8:59 a.m., York police tweeted to its 151,000 followers: “Police presence at Huron Heights Secondary School in Newmarket in regards to a social media post. There has been nothing of any safety concern located at the school, however, we are on scene to ensure the safety of all students & staff and will be investigating the post further.”
Meanwhile, at 8:30 a.m., the York Region District School Board tweeted from its official account to its 78,700 followers: “Huron Heights SS is currently in a hold and secure. There is an increased police presence at the school. All students and staff are safe.”
A hold and secure means that a potential threat could exist outside the school, and exterior doors are locked to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the building. School activities continue as usual for those inside.
Parents who were already on the road from communities outside of Newmarket to drop off their children at Huron Heights were none too impressed. They replied on Twitter to the York public board’s hold-and-secure announcement.
“Would of been nice if you had of tweeted this earlier...after having to drive from Holland Landing only to be turned back home. Going forward, maybe give parents a heads up in future would be a good idea,” @TaylorCtaylor67 wrote.
“Yup, did the same thing myself from Mount Albert, so now late for work,” said @toadzca.
Others, whose teenagers were already on the bus to school, fumed that they only received an email notifying them of the hold-and-secure situation after 8:30 a.m.
“Apparently, regular activities continue (inside the school) with the doors locked and an increased police presence. My kids are still outside on a bus,” wrote @Aliceinalberta.
In contrast, parent Janice Canavan replied: “Be thankful our kids are safe, thanks to the school and the police for reacting so quickly! Does everyone think that when there is a crisis like this that the police are going to take the time to make sure the parents and those on their way to school are a priority?”
At 10:03 a.m., the York school board tweeted that the hold-and-secure had been lifted, and that students and staff are safe and classes will resume as scheduled.
York school board spokesperson Licinio Miguelo says it follows police and board emergency preparedness protocols whenever there are significant incidents that could affect students, staff and school operations.
"Our first priority is student safety," he said.
For more information of Bully Free Community Alliance, visit http://www.bullyfreeyork.ca/