Local officials spent the days leading up to the holidays on high alert. On Thursday, Dec. 13, school officials were notified about a racially charged, aggressive post on social media. On Tuesday, Dec. 18, Southington police and school officials were scrambling to investigate a high school gun threat. Our town wasn’t alone. As the first story broke in Southington, Bristol was scrambling to secure three different buildings as a rash of bomb threats was sweeping through the state.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a surprise or anything new around the holidays. Holidays can be a big source of stress, amplifying tensions to a breaking point. Every holiday brings longer police blotters and an uptick in 911 calls. That spills into every sector of the community, including our schools.
News about the social media rant was sparked when Southington superintendent of schools Timothy Connellan learned about the post. He quickly sent a message to parents and a press release to local media with the facts that were known at the time. Police followed with another press release. TV, print, and online media quickly disbursed the facts.
News about the gun threat was disbursed just as quickly. Police were quick to explain their presence to quell any alarm. “An increased police presence will be at Southington High School as a precaution,” police said in a release, “to alleviate anxiety on the students and staff and so that the school may continue in a positive educational environment.” Perfect.
Bristol’s mayor and police acted just as quickly with the bomb threats just across our border.
Details may seem vague in these early news reports, so it’s no surprise that people clamor to the internet. But there’s a danger in using an internet chatroom as a “news” source. The second crisis, the gun threat, actually stemmed from misinformation in posts about the racial rant. “Rumors spread on social media should remind us again, that this is one of the negative things about social media—the ability to spread false information quickly, over a wide range of consumers,” Connellan said in a press release. “Just because something is posted on a social media platform does not mean it is true.”
The purpose of breaking news is to announce the facts after they are properly vetted, but it’s also a chance for public officials to explain any necessary steps for public safety. Reports have a responsibility to be properly vetted as fact and a requirement that all parties’ rights are protected—from the victims to the accused. Further details will come out in subsequent news reports and press releases, but it usually takes time to fully investigate. Like we saw with the gun threat, fear-fueled mistakes can be just as dangerous as the crisis, itself.
We all want to know everything as quickly as possible, but it’s just as important to get it right. It’s important to protect everyone’s rights, even the accused. School officials, police, and media were careful not to release the accused’s name in the social media incident, to protect the right to due process, especially for minors. As we scanned social media, we actually saw one post that had the name of the accused linked to untrue facts. This is unfair…and against the law.
We all have a right to free speech. That is sometimes tested, especially when that speech is ugly and wrong. But free speech doesn’t give anybody a right to threaten or defame another individual—whether it’s a veiled or not-so-veiled racial threat or a person spreading unvetted, potentially libelous information to the public in a chatroom reaction.
There are no shortcuts. Leave it to police, courts, and other experts to investigate. That’s what they’re trained to do. And we’ll report it as quickly—and responsibly—as possible.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.