Nebraska Schools Adapting to Student Social Media Use

Parents gather in the David City School Auditorium to learn about responsible social media use. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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March 19, 2015 - 6:45am

During the first half of the 2014/2015 school year, there were at least four documented threats of violence against schools in Nebraska. Most recently, a bomb threat was made against York High School using a social media website. Nebraska schools are working on ways to make sure students stay safe in the digital age.


In February, 18-year-old Ryan Boyer was arrested when he allegedly made a bomb threat against York High School, in eastern Nebraska.

The above image is taken from Yik Yak's online user agreement, defining the rules for the site's users (called Yakkers).

Police say Boyer posted the threat on Yik Yak, a mobile application which allows users to post anonymously. Yik Yak’s developers say it’s meant for college students. They will not release any numbers on how many people use the app, but told NET News it’s active on 1,500 college campuses.

Each post, or yak, is shown to people within a 5-10 mile radius of the original poster. It is designed to facilitate online conversations with nearby users.

But the location trackers also mean police were able to find Ryan Boyer within hours of the threat being posted. He has since been charged with a felony.

The incident in York is the most recent, but it’s not the first time a Nebraska school has been threatened on Yik Yak.

Kelly Bartling is the assistant vice chancellor for communications and community relations at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

She says there was a situation last fall on the UNK campus when a student was observed making threats on Yik Yak.

“So immediately our police and administration became aware of Yik Yak, but prior to that I don’t think anybody knew what it was,” Bartling said.

The threats came from Matthew Skinner, a UNK student. Skinner used Yik Yak to threaten to blow up a residence hall and the library on campus, which is visible from Bartling’s office window.

Skinner has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in connection with the incident and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

Kelly Bartling, the assistant vice chancellor for communications and community relations at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said she now checks Yik Yak on a daily basis, after a former UNK student used the site to post a bomb threat against the school's library. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Last fall, 19-year-old Matthew Skinner was arrested hours after he posted a threat on Yik Yak. Skinner made threats against a residence hall on campus, and against the Calvin T. Ryan Library. Skinner has pleaded guilty to the incident and will be sentenced in April. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Bartling says UNK now monitors Yik Yak, along with other social media sites. Looking at her iPhone, she read a few of the tamer "yaks" aloud.

How do you drop out of a class?

I don’t want to see you but I’m wondering where you are?

If you don’t enjoy this weather, then you aren’t from Nebraska.

Sometimes I just need someone to hug and talk to.

Bartling says Yik Yak offers a snapshot of student life, but should not be taken as an accurate representation of life on campus.

According to National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based school safety consulting firm, Nebraska ranks 39th in terms of credible threats against schools. There were four such threats in Nebraska from August through December of 2014; two threats on Yik Yak, one through Twitter, and one handwritten note.

The much more common concerns with social media sites are cyber-bullying and sexting, or sending nude pictures.

Knowing these are legitimate concerns for many parents, some schools have taken a proactive approach.

“It’s been an ongoing discussion. I think the incidents in York just show you that these aren’t just a York problem, that it’s an everywhere problem. Everyone’s got these same issues going on, they’ve just been in the news lately,” Cortney Couch said.

Couch is the principal of David City Secondary School, a junior/senior high school with just over 300 students in eastern Nebraska. He says while the majority of online interactions between students are positive, we can’t ignore the negatives. 

“This is not necessarily a kid thing, this is kind of a societal thing. Conflict resolution skills aren’t what they could be, so if I have a problem with you I’m going to go to social media and I’m going to put something on there. And then you’re not going to come to me to solve the problem, you’re going to go to social media. You’re going to one up me, and these things go on and on and on,” Couch explained.

“A lot of [the conflicts on social media don’t] take place in these hallways, but the issues come in with the kids when they come in here," Couch said.  "So you’ve got parents with hurt feelings calling up, they’re angry. You’ve got kids with hurt feelings and they don’t want to come to school because they feel like they can’t look at this person, just those sorts of things.”

To help kids learn how to better handle what they should and should not say online, and to help parents learn more about how kids are using social media, Couch invited Lincoln-based lawyer Karen Haase to speak to students and parents at his school.

Karen Haase of KSB School Law in Lincoln speaks to parents of students in David City Public Schools. Haase's firm represents more than 150 schools inside and outside of Nebraska. Haase said parents must take responsibility in educating their children on proper social media use. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Traveon Presley-Freeman, a business administration major and athlete at UNK, said he just recently learned about Yik Yak. "I feel like on Yik Yak, there’s a lot of people that could be on there talking bad about you and they know who you are but you don’t necessarily know who they are," Presley-Freeman said. "That same day you could be talking to them and they could be pretending to be your friend, you know?" (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

 

Haase is on the road two-to-three days a week, giving talks on what it means to use social media responsibly. Since most schools are dismissed from lawsuits concerning online bullying, Haase says it’s ultimately the parents’ responsibility to know what their kids are doing both in the real world, and online.

“Social media is value neutral,” Haase said, “I don’t know that it’s social media that’s a danger, it’s kids using social media in ways that are unwise that’s a danger. It’s parents not being aware of who their kids are hanging out with on social media that’s dangerous.”

At her talk in David City, Haase told parents they need to take the time to teach their kids how to use social media, just like they do when their children are ready to learn how to drive a car.

Of course, one way to avoid conflicts online, is to stay offline.

Traveon Presley-Freeman, a business administration major at UNK, says he just recently learned about Yik Yak, and he has no plans of joining.

“It didn’t really sound like something that I would be interested in, because as cool as it could be--and I know what the use of the app is for—but being anonymous helps out a lot of unfortunately ignorant people,” Presley-Freeman said.  “I’ve heard there’s been some pretty vulgar things on there. I’m on the football team here and they kind of attack a lot of people and that’s just not something I’m really interested in, you know?”

But even Presley-Freeman says he has Facebook and Twitter accounts. More than 9 out of 10 American teens use some form of social media. So parents and schools will have to continue to work together, and prevent such sites from being used in a way that could negatively impact others.

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