When do online rumors become credible school threats?

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) A recent case in Bennington of school threat rumors spread online has highlighted a growing problem. A woman shared a rumor about a threat to a town blotter and it turned out not to be true. Police cited her, saying she had no information that it was a credible threat and caused panic. But what she did may not have been illegal, even if it is disruptive.

Legal expert Jerry O'Neill says Vermont has a specific statute dealing with threats. Starting a rumor will get you in trouble. Spreading one may not. "The state would have to prove that the person knew that the statement was false," O'Neill said. "If you were to pick up an unsubstantiated rumor and simply say, 'I heard this and I believe this,' it's not a violation of the law."

But that doesn't mean it's not a hassle for school administrators and public safety officials when a rumor gets shared online. Vermont's School Crisis Planning Team Chair Rob Evans says the value of the "see something, say something" campaign is when it brings information to the appropriate people -- like school officials or police -- so that they can investigate whether it's credible.

Like many schools around the state, Champlain Valley Union has experienced its share of threats and rumors that have turned out to be unfounded. In one recent case, a 15-year-old student's home was searched and no evidence of any threat was found. But rumors like that cause a disruption.

"It's almost the entire leadership team that gets involved," said CVU Principal Adam Bunting. He says while social media can help identify concerns, it can also help spread anxiety and fear. "The reality of being an administrator these days is that you have to act very quickly because information spreads very quickly."

When a concern is reported and after the initial steps are taken to make sure everyone is safe, Bunting says they make sure to pause and be thoughtful of everyone involved. "No matter what, at the core of it, whether someone is threatening someone else or whatever it happens to be, you've got people who you need to care about and need to listen to," Bunting said.

And that's also where students come in. Bunting says CVU's student presidents are already spearheading a campaign on campus focusing on being inclusive and connected. "I actually take a lead from our students on this one, and that's be present when you can, be aware of one another and be kind," he said.

Because he says the real complication of social media -- and the rumors that start there -- is when students feel isolated.