METHUEN — A hoax social media post threatening violence against a school in Virginia went viral Sunday night, alarming students, parents and police hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts as the photo proliferated through the community.
But just as students in Methuen were sharing the post to warn their peers of a possible shooting threat against their high school, police were using social media to their advantage to crack the case of the post's origins.
The post originated in Virginia and was directed against Monticello High School, which shares the same initials as Methuen High School and presumably hundreds of other high schools throughout the country. It was initially sent out via Snapchat, a social media app where users can send photos and messages to each other that usually disappear after a set amount of time; but those photos can also be saved if the user takes a screenshot of their device.
It read: “Don't go to school tomorrow @MHS. Students.” and “Loaded up bout head out” in text layered over a photo of several rifles.
Through the dense web of social media networking, the post made its way to Methuen through students who were connected with someone in Virginia who had shared the photo. It continued making the rounds as students took screenshots and passed it along to their contacts.
The same social networks that allowed the photo to spread also helped police investigate its source, as parents and students took to Facebook and other social media outlets to notify authorities of the threatening missive.
“People are more comfortable with the 'see something, say something'” initiative, Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon said. “I think it's (resonating) with people and everyone realizes threats are to be taken seriously and I think it's made a difference.”
Messages from parents and students alike started pouring in about 8 p.m. Sunday, inundating the social media accounts of Solomon, the police department and the email inboxes of school officials like Principal Richard Barden.
As soon as the messages lit up their screens, Solomon said he and Officer Gina Scanlon, one of the department's social media officers, began sending out notifications. Quickly, a massive discovery effort began to take shape.
Solomon and Scanlon collected names and addresses from those who had reached out and fed them to on-duty officers including Capt. Randy Haggar and Lt. Ron Valliere. Those at the police station started making lists of everyone who called. Lt. Joseph Aiello, the head school resource officer, and Officer Michael Farelli, the resource officer for Methuen High School, were called in. Barden, Superintendent of Schools Judith Scannell and new Mayor James Jajuga were notified as well.
Solomon, Scannell, Barden and Aiello met with the shift lieutenant at the station and “we just started dispatching officers to every location,” Solomon said. At the same time, detectives were doing research of their own, trying to trace the photo online. In all, Solomon said about 10 people were actively working on the case, including the off-duty officers who were brought in.
“This is where the hard part of it is,” Solomon said. “You have to figure out: Student A got the message from Student B, who got it from Student C. We have to track all of those contacts to where it originated.”
Through interviews with students and parents, police were able to trace the post back to three Methuen High students. They said they had seen the post from a girl who lives in Virginia with whom they were connected on Snapchat but did not know in real life. They began sharing it with their friends on Snapchat to warn them, including a group chat that had other students from Methuen High.
It was a “multiplier effect,” Solomon said, adding that even some parents were sharing it.
“It was less than an hour and we had 50 phone calls and we lost track of how many Facebook posts,” Solomon said, echoing his sentiments from Sunday night. “This one went like wildfire.”
Having hit upon the Virginia connection through their own research, Methuen police detectives contacted their counterparts in Virginia. The Albemarle County Police Department said they had a juvenile in custody connected to the threat. News reports from CBS19 News in Virginia on Monday said a felony charge was being brought against the suspect for making a threat to harm people at a school.
The Methuen students who picked up the hoax locally are not being charged; it was determined they were only circulating the photo to alert others, Solomon said.
Aided by social media and the internet, police managed to crack Sunday's case in just a matter of hours. By 10:45 p.m., the police and school departments had issued messages on social media saying there was no threat against Methuen High School and “no cause for concern.” Classes resumed as usual on Monday.
Solomon credits the “intense education” the police department has done to encourage community members to report anything suspicious with aiding the quick resolution of the case.
“I'm so glad that parents and students were notifying us,” he said.
Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakashinsky.