What School Safety and Threat Assessment Teams Need to Know When Assessing Worrisome Online BehaviorCo-Written with Safer Schools Together
Another layer to School Security:
the Digital Threat Assessment
With increased threats to schools being intercepted daily, the digital threats made on social media platforms must be taken as seriously as the bomb threats left on slips of paper in school bathrooms in years’ past; This includes the latest vague threat via TikTok that has schools throughout the country on high-alert today. “National Shoot Up Your School Day” is the threat, or ‘challenge’, that encourages acts of violence from students including shootings and bomb threats. While no specific school or district was named in this December 17 threat, schools across the country are acting accordingly. The challenge for School Resource Officers is being one step ahead of these threats and deciphering language being used on social media that indicates a student is considering an act of violence.
Students may use covert language to communicate suicidal intentions, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. According to Safer Schools Together (SST) Trainer and Senior Threat Analyst, Nick Chernoff, “It’s important for parents, educators, and law enforcement who support student safety to pay attention to what youth are posting online, especially because many of our social interactions have moved online since the pandemic.”
A Secret Language…
Although students have always had a secret language to express their thoughts and feelings on social media, Threat Analysts at SST have noticed a resurgence in this online trend and new accompanying vocabulary. We first saw covert language used with the hashtag “#mysecretfamily”. In this trend, youth were posting about family members named Ana (girls) or Rex (boys) to speak about their struggles with anorexia, family members named Sue (girls) or Dallas (boys) if they were struggling with suicidal ideation, and other names that corresponded with other various mental health struggles.
Now we are seeing students posting about wanting to become “unalive” or “unal!ve” and using misspelled words like “sewercide” when they are struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. Seemingly innocent lines such as “I had pasta tonight” and “I finished my shampoo and conditioner at the same time” are often meant to be seen as a cry for help when posted on social media by teens and young adults. It is believed that the phrases are derived from Hannah Dains’ poem “Don’t Kill Yourself Today”, which lists reasons why a suicidal person should choose to stay alive.
Students may use covert language as a subtle cry for help. They don’t want to speak directly about the things they are going through, so instead they use these codes to signal to their peers that they are struggling. Another reason for the use of secret language could be that certain social media platforms have censored posts containing hashtags such as #depression #suicide and even those that were once covert such as #Ana and #Sue.
Using the Digital Threat Assessment…
According to Chernoff, the added stress of the pandemic has caused increased anxiety in youth, and it’s more important than ever to pay attention to what they are posting online. “This is where Digital Threat Assessment® (DTA) is key because it provides school safety and threat assessment teams the training they need to identify and document worrisome online behavior,” says Chernoff. “Digital Threat Assessment is the missing link for Behavioral Threat Assessment teams.”
The ever-changing digital world with emerging new apps and platforms requires all of us to pay careful attention to the online digital behavioral baselines of individuals engaged in threat related behavior. Recognizing digital leakage is necessary for School Safety and Threat Assessment teams to identify individuals on the pathway to harm themselves or others and to plan immediate risk-reducing data driven intervention plans.