Oswego City School District students returned to class after the Memorial Day weekend with a police escort. The precautionary measure was taken after a threatening picture of a student with a toy gun was posted on social media. It was later determined to be non-credible.
The picture that stirred public alarm featured a middle school student holding a long, black airsoft toy gun with the caption, "Don't come to school on Tuesday." Oswego City Police Sgt. Lorie Burger, the district's school resource officer, says the 13-year-old uploaded the picture to Snapchat, a private messaging platform, as a joke.
"Originally they thought, 'oh this is just a joke'. They didn’t mean it as a threat. They thought it would be taken as a joke," Burger said. "Obviously that’s not what happened."
The picture circulated far beyond Snapchat, causing panicked parents and fellow students to call police. The student was arrested and charged with falsely reporting in the third degree, a misdemeanor that could bring up to a year of probation and community service. Burger says that charge, as opposed to making a terroristic threat, better fits this crime and is less likely to be thrown out in court. She says it's the best match for a penal code that was largely crafted before social media.
"I don’t think our penal law is caught up to our society where we are at now," Burger said. "Unfortunately, the penal law is not directed towards social media. We are heading that way but we are not there yet."
The student involved is also facing up to a year of out-of-school suspension. Oswego City School District Superintendent Dean Goewey says the harsh punishments are necessary because these days, actual school shooters are leaving warnings and clues about their plans on social media.
"You don’t know what they’re thinking, you have to always assume that it’s a legitimate threat," Goewey said. "Until you investigate it and really dig in deep, you don’t know that, which is why joking about things anything related to school violence or threatening behaviors or anything aggressive at all just can’t be tolerated."
Goewey says this was an important lesson for more than just this student, it's for all 3,600 in the district. But it is a difficult situation.
"I think we are comfortable that it was intended to be a joke, but it wasn’t funny," Goewey said. "It wasn’t a joke. And you have to balance some re-teaching with an element of punishment, but ultimately our goal is to get kids to graduation - but you can’t fool around with this stuff now."