EDITORIAL: What happened at Taconic Hills

POLICE SUDDENLY SHOWED UP, a basketball game was rescheduled from evening to afternoon under tight security, and after-school programs were canceled. Something was going on Monday at the Taconic Hills campus in Craryville, but even a day or two later, it’s hard to name it.

That’s not a criticism of the authorities involved, who correctly took no chances after a student alerted a principal to allegedly threatening language on a Facebook page. It didn’t stop there; rumors and hard information mingled on the multiple digital pathways by which kids–and many of their elders–prefer to communicate. Sadly, the school district’s website was not reachable while concerns about a crisis percolated through the school community. Meantime, school officials, the State Police and the county Sheriff’s Office did exactly what the public wants them to do when warning signs appear. They jumped into action.

This incident doesn’t fit the profile of a false alarm, when some troublemaker tricks emergency services into responding just for the thrill or perhaps a more twisted rationale. The source of the Taconic Hills problem seems to have been a message posted on a social media site that was discussed–though not actually viewed– by others, with no accurate count of how many may have joined the conversation. That’s the allure of social media: the chance that a brilliant, funny, irrelevant or distorted thought you express might draw an audience, possibly one so large and diverse that your message is said to have gone viral, shared like contagious infection.

Who knows how far this story will travel. Officials are aware that Taconic Hills students were sharing information about what was happening through a matrix of social media and text services that magnified the impact beyond anything possible only a few years ago.
Don’t dismiss this incident as collective hysteria either. How is anyone, especially a teenager, supposed to evaluate the validity of the source of critical information, assuming a single source is possible to locate?

The questions go on and on: How does our constitutionally protected right to free speech factor in to the discussion of when and how to react? How much protection in the form of emergency responders can we afford when it comes to digital threats as opposed to clear physical dangers? How can we anticipate the threats and identify high risk messages by distinguishing them from the background noise of people saying the same stupid things they’ve always said except now millions of people can hear them?

Common sense may apply, as in parents talking with their kids about the risks of the current generation of smart phones and social media platforms. This approach assumes that parents have the faintest idea what these devices and services do and how their kids are using them. The best many parents can hope for from these interactions is that the child will tolerate the parent’s repeated plea: Wait! Go slower! How’d you do that?

Realistically, parents, teachers and school districts haven’t got a chance on their own of keeping up with multi-billion dollar industries that already track what we buy, where we travel, who we know, how much money we have and when we’re going to spend it, among other data they collect on us all. These industries have put unimaginably powerful tools of mass communication in the hands of unsupervised children and there is no way we can stop that. But there are ways schools can teach students how to weigh the values against the drawbacks of the technologies and services that play such a large part in their lives.

The state Board of Regents is about to ask the governor and the legislature for $1.3 billion in additional school aid in the next state budget. The money is designated for specific purposes, including more teacher training in the new Common Core Curriculum. Undoubtedly teachers need help with the curriculum, but the state should also set aside funds for model projects designed to help students navigate a world in which digital enterprise is competing with public education for the minds of the next generation… and digital enterprise is winning.

Whatever you’d call the incident at Taconic Hills, the preparations for coping with a conventional threat at the school appear to have worked. But having prepared for kinds of emergencies we know about, schools like TH must now get ready for the new threats now lighting up the latest generation of devices that mesmerize our children.

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