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TikTok posts about violence raise anxiety

A number of Butler County schools joined districts across the state and nation in sending messages to families regarding “disturbing social media posts” circulating on TikTok referencing Friday school shootings and bomb threats.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Noe Ortega sent out a letter to all 500 school districts in Pennsylvania specifying that the state Department of Education, state police and local police departments were aware of social media posts warning of “school shootings and bomb threats to schools across the nation,” but that the messages are “not specific to Pennsylvania and do not contain specific threats, schools, actors, or locations.”

“PDE and PSP encourage schools to share this message with their staff, parents, and students to spread awareness of these social media posts and to remind the community to be aware of and report any suspicious activity or threats,” Ortega wrote.

Anyone with further information is encouraged to contact Safe2Say or call 911 in the event of an emergency. Additionally, a mobile application, “Safe2Say Something PA,” can be downloaded on smart devices; online tips can be sent via safe2saypa.org; and telephonic tips can be made to the 24/7 Crisis Center Hotline at 844-SAF2SAY.

Seneca Valley School District sent out an early-morning notification to parents alerting them all students kindergarten through grade 12 would learn virtually, and there would be a two-hour delay Friday, as a result of the TikTok posts.According to an update on the school's website late Friday, there will be an increase of police officers posted at the schools in the coming weeks, and that parents and students should keep them updated with credible information like screenshots, names or dates in relation to the threats.While the district did not reference any posts specifically targeting Seneca Valley, one account posted three videos implying that a student would commit a violent crime at school Friday. The account followed several Seneca students and accounts mentioning the district by name.The district made the decision to go virtual one day after false rumors spread through social media, including among parents, about a possible attack at school. Jackson Township police Chief Terry Seilhamer said Thursday the prior rumors had no merit.Seilhamer said the TikTok account did not appear to be a student at Seneca nor any community member, and added similar accounts popped up across the country.“It appears, to me, that this may have been disseminated by a bot network,” Seilhamer said.According to the update on the school district's website, school police officers held a debrief on Friday where a timeline was compiled of social media posts, screen shots, interviews and other evidence. Officers will continue working to identify those involved in the threats and are seeking assistance at county, state and federal levels.

Mars Area, Slippery Rock Area and Butler Area school districts sent out messages to inform families that the schools and local law enforcement were aware of the social media threats.“We asked our police officers to be more vigilant today and have increased patrols, and our director of school police, Paul Epps, talked to local police as well to make sure they were aware of it,” Butler Area Superintendent Brian White said. “But we have nothing specific to Butler Area School District.”“Our superintendent did inform the community last night, he sent out a text and voicemail message last night sharing the concerns that PDE had shared with us,” said Susan Miller, Slippery Rock assistant superintendent. “We continue to implement all of the preventative measures that we have at school, including our armed security guards, our visitor identification system and any of the proactive things we have including restricted entranceways and working with our students.”South Butler County, Allegheny-Clarion Valley and Karns City Area school districts all posted messages on their district websites clarifying that school administrators and local law enforcement are aware of the situation.“I wanted to assure you that we are aware of and responding to the post,” wrote South Butler County Superintendent David Foley. “Second, I wanted to remind everyone that bringing a firearm onto District property is not only against school regulations, but it is also against the law. We are taking this possibility very seriously, and we ask that you have a serious conversation with your student as well.”A-C Valley Superintendent David McDeavitt wrote that the district heard reports from other districts that the TikTok post is circulating in their schools.“While we do not believe the threat to be credible, we are closely monitoring the situation and taking it seriously,” he wrote. “This situation serves as a good example of why it is important to avoid sharing posts online that refer to school safety threats. Even if they are not credible threats, they can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety for our students, families and staff.”He encouraged families to monitor their children's social media activity and speak with them about proper behavior online.

In response to concerns over threats of school violence on social media, Butler Catholic School kept students inside school buildings during the school day Friday.Sister John Ann Mulhern, principal, said that the soft lockdown was out of an abundance of caution.“Staff, and no other people, will be coming in,” she said. “The children will be inside today, even during lunch and recess, so that they are safe. We have no indication of anything going on; it's just out of abundance of caution for the kids.”Mulhern received the state Department of Education letter warning of vague threats posted on TikTok, and said that all precautions are to keep students as safe as possible. A school Mass with parent visitors had previously been planned, but the event went on without visitors.“It's a sad commentary on where we are in the world today, it really is, especially at this time of the year,” she said. “It makes it very difficult, and it's hard for the little ones to understand.”Students were still able to take their school bus home and be picked up as normal at the end of the day. “We're trying to keep things as ordinary as possible for the kids, and that way there is security in normalcy,” Mulhern said. “We're keeping kids safe — that's what it's all about.”Additional contributions were made by Eagle Staff Writer Molly Miller.