Guard against rushes to judgment

Messages about threats to students at South Terrebonne High School, determined at this point to be unfounded, still resonate within the school community nearly two weeks after panic-stricken parents showed up to check their children out of school, many rejecting assurances from law enforcement and education officials that no credible threat existed.

Details on the school’s day of angst are detailed in a story that appears in this week’s edition of The Times. It focuses largely on the arrest of a STHS senior on a charge of terrorizing. It also contains new information about the messages that actually communicated information about threats posted on social by students and passed from one to the other like a virus. The post that the youth who was arrested made did not contain an actual threat. It was a photo of another student who inexplicably showed up for school wearing a mask that some people regarded as threatening. According to relatives and friends of the student, it was made without knowledge of the drama that was occurring elsewhere in the school.

Parents who saw the written posts or learned of their contents were understandably shaken. But their insistence that danger lurked within the walls of South Terrebonne despite assurances to the contrary point to some serious issues that must be addressed.

Viral passing of false information is something all users of social media must be conscious of avoiding. Where information has initially come from, who is purveying it and whether it has been found credible are questions all of us need to ask before cutting, pasting or posting, or pressing the re-post button.

Some parents called law enforcement or notified the school of what they had seen or read. This is entirely proper. Notifying the world of something that may not be true is not.

On the day of panic at South Terrebonne, Col. Terry Daigre of the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office made a responsible call, by issuing an official statement indicating that after investigation, no credible threat was found.

We sympathize with parents and fully understand their concerns in situations such as these. But situations such as these are precisely what require the greatest discretion. If an actual threat existed at a school on a given day, then why would authorities seek to deny it, and in the process endanger children? We understand skepticism. It is a compelling component of good journalism. But skepticism and irresponsible trafficking in conspiracy theories are two completely different things.

This brings us to the question of Tate Songe’s arrest on a charge of terrorizing, a serious felony that holds massive consequences. Our concern in this regard exists not just because of this defendant, but the questions the charge raises considering past and future treatment of youngsters whose online behavior, while ill-advised and ill-conceived, should in many cases not be seen as approaching such a high legal bar.

This may be one of them.

That a high school student who has issued no direct threats, not been accused of packing a weapon and not been accused of having a hit list can be charged with such a serious felony is frightening. If anything, social media messages that floated around the school with unproven claims of imminent danger more closely fit the legal model.

Schools have a responsibility, if no threat of actual violence exists, to more actively assess threat potentials. We realize administrators walk a fine and sometimes treacherous line. it is true that too many tragedies have occurred because officials failed to investigate signs of trouble. But it is also true that making examples of young people once no danger is determined to exist in life-altering ways is not desirable.

This being said, we cannot urge young people enough to be careful of what they post on social media for others to see, and in many cases save and share. A youngster may not be able to conceive of how a message they find amusing, smart or in all ways innocent of ill intent can be very easily looked at a different way by people with the authority and ability to wreck futures and careers forever.

We hope that our detailed presentation of these incidents at South Terrebonne High School will help clear up misunderstandings, and that the points covered here will help us all to emerge from this stronger, more cohesive, and more mindful of consequences when we rush to judgement.