Second Thoughts: Too much grist for the rumor mill
by Jon Mendelson
Mar 15, 2013 | 4724 views | 4 4 comments | 816 816 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Just as flu season begins to wane, Tracy gets bitten by a gossip bug — a nasty one, too.

The symptoms were full-blown Wednesday, March 13, when the Tracy Police Department mobile command center set up shop at Kimball High School and school officials evacuated Tracy High School.

The disease went critical Thursday, March 14, when Kimball High was evacuated.

Each case was the result of rascals run rampant.

At Kimball High, a scrawl on a bathroom wall Friday, March 8, set in motion a mill that by Monday, March 11, had churned out a rumor that a shooting was planned at the campus off Lammers Road.

The school sent out notices to parents, and police responded with a calm show of force on Wednesday. And just as school district administrators predicted, the school day went on as usual. At least, as usual as it can be when a giant police trailer is in the parking lot.

The day did not go as usual at Tracy High, where it seems the Kimball rumors spilled over and set off another scare.

This time, writing found in campus bathrooms was interpreted as a bomb threat, and about an hour before Wednesday’s final bell, the East 11th Street high school was emptied.

As Lincoln Park was packed with evacuated teenagers, police searched the school and found, once again, that the threat was not credible.

The virulent strain returned to Kimball on Thursday, when an apparent bomb threat emptied the school around 2 p.m.

School officials say the Kimball bomb threat was an “isolated incident,” but I’ll bet money it was somehow an evolution of what happened at Tracy High and Kimball earlier in the week.

As of press time Thursday, no one had been injured, and it appeared no one was ever in serious danger.

Except, that is, for the two teens arrested for allegedly instigating the Tracy High hoax.

Tracy Unified School District spokeswoman Jessica Cardoza told me that these types of threats are taken to heart because, even if they don’t seem believable, student safety is a non-negotiable priority.

Just because no one turned out to be in harm’s way doesn’t mean that police resources were wasted or that administrators were wrong to react with an abundance of caution.

In the wake of incidents such as the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., administrators and law enforcement simply can’t assume that the sound and fury of rumors signify nothing.

On the contrary, police and administrators treated the situations as they should — seriously.

If there’s any blame to be parceled out, it belongs elsewhere.

It would be easy to say school days and class time were needlessly disrupted because someone decided it would be fun to write something on the walls, or turn those words into something more salacious, or confuse a bomb threat for a prank.

It would be easy because it’s true.

But it’s also not that simple.

Gossip isn’t something that just happens among teenagers. Adults are equally adept at spreading misinformation, maliciously or not.

It’s also unfair to lay the blame solely at the feet of social media.

While platforms like Twitter — the medium through which the Kimball High shooting rumor apparently spread — make it easy to reach more people faster than in-person conversations, they don’t cause gossip. Those who remember high school should recall how fast half-truths spread through hallways and locker rooms without the aid of smartphones.

The point is, eliminating Twitter (or teenagers) won’t stop false alarms.

And while punishing those responsible is necessary, in the end it’s only an after-the-fact reaction.

The only real preventative measures are education and empathy — getting people of all ages to understand how serious such threats are and how inappropriate it is to start or encourage falsehoods that, if they were true, would have truly tragic results.

Perhaps relying on the better angels of our nature to prevail against such pestilence is a fool’s hope. But it might be the best one that we have.

• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at jmendelson@tracypress.com.

• Editor's note: This column was updated to reflect information provided after the column went to print Thursday, March 14.
Comments
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Macpup
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March 15, 2013
I agree with the gist of your article that gossip can blow a situation out of proportion, but I don't understand the education and empathy part. I believe the person or persons scrawling on the bathroom walls understood what they were doing was wrong and their actions would cause the shutdown of the school. As to empathy, I'm completely at a loss.
backinblack
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March 15, 2013
Leave it to Mendelson to use the term rascals to describe the alleged perpetrators of what may be legally provable as a terrorists act. To wit:

From yesterdays story about the arrests of two students:

"Two of the students are being charged with making terrorist threats"

"It’s believed that the threat was made in an effort to disrupt state-mandated testing being conducted this week."

From the dictionary: "terrorist act - the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear"

Technically the act does not have to be religious, political, or idealogical. In this case if proven a threat of force was made to alter the course of the school day or state mandated testing the element of coercion or instilling fear to achieve that goal is present.

Hey Mendelson, you want to know how we stop this kind of thing from happening? If the evidence supports it the authorities need to follow through with going after convictions for making terrorist threats. That will send a clear message.

cont....

backinblack
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March 15, 2013
This article is a good example of why we are a society in moral decay. Rather than focusing on how this potentially provable act of terror has already affected our city and the potential future economic impact of the black eye this gives Tracy, Mendelson chooses to yak about social media and rumors, and oh yea, he throws in one of the favorite catch words of the apologists, empathy.

I'm I going too far? I sure as hell don't think so, every decent person in this city who's had enough should be outraged by what's happened this week at our schools. It's time to send a loud & clear message. Again, if the evidence supports it, go after terrorism convictions and if proven let's call the two arrested teens what they will be if convicted, terrorists.

Empathy my backside.
doors17
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March 15, 2013
I realize after what happen in Newtown everyone is on edge and every precaution possible must be made by the schools and police. I do believe that the blame and angry should be directed at those responsible for causing the disruptions. When you’re dealing with such a situation with so many people it can’t be easy to organize everything perfectly. If mistakes are made, you learn from them and try your best avoid it from ever repeating itself. Hopefully yesterdays arrest will put an end to anyone thinking of doing the same thing.

35 years ago I worked at a grocery store in the Los Angeles area and we received a bomb threat. After we evacuated and waited in the parking lot we could hear the LAPD’s radios saying they found a bomb. It was for real. So it’s always best to be safe than splattered. What was funny is our cheapskate manager made everyone clock out before we could leave.

Have a safe and relaxing weekend everyone, it sounds like we can all use one.



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