EDITORIAL: December 17 — The Day Alarm Bells, not Holiday Bells, Were Amplified by Social Media
This week has been a difficult one for many reasons. The holiday season is always a busy time or year, and, usually, bells can be heard as one travels around town running last-minute errands.
Bells are symbols of joy and freedom but this year the holiday season would be marked by bells of a different kind.
As a reporter, it’s important to keep on top of the happenings around town. This week, I found it very difficult to keep my personal feelings aside and just observe what was happening.
There’s this voice inside my head. A voice of past experience that is, often, too loud to ignore. Modern day psychology labels my behavior as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. I personally don’t believe it’s a disorder, especially, given the times we live in.
Our bodies and brains are excellent at learning from our past experiences. A fear response to new stimuli that is similar to those past fearful events is, in fact, quite normal. Nonetheless, this week, as reports began to come in about vague online threats of school shootings, I did react.
My heart would skip and I would feel caught in-between beats, waiting to catch my breath.
I am a survivor of a mass school shooting.
Almost a full twenty-three years ago, I was a freshman at Columbine High School when two students—Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold—entered my school armed with intent. That day, I lost friends, and my life, along with many others, was forever changed.
The morning of April 20, 1999 began just like any other. I went to school, saw my friends, and went to class. Little did I know, it would be the longest day of my life.
I sat patiently during math waiting for the hour-long class to pass so that I could join my friends for lunch. I glanced up to the clock and it read 11:18 a.m.
A minute later, chaos erupted from the halls.
No one at that time expected what would happen next. My teacher asked me to look into the hall to see what was going on. I opened the door only to find students running towards the emergency exits. People were screaming and some were crying. One girl ran past me with her arms folded over her chest crying, “dear God, somebody help us.”
In complete shock, I turned back towards the room when I heard gunshots go off. The door closed and everyone stared at me with baited breath. “There’s someone in the school with a gun,” I said.
My schoolmates and teacher looked at me in disbelief. Another shot fired off, I broke out in tears, and, moving as one, we all hid behind our teacher’s desk. The door was locked from the inside but, through the window, we could see students and teachers rush past. I remember looking at the terror struck faces of my classmates and teacher wondering what we were going to do as someone tried to soothe my tears.
A few minutes went by before another teacher came down the hall. He turned to our door and started pounding on it with both fists after realizing it was locked. He screamed, “get out, get out now.” Again, as one, the entire class flew towards the door.
I was fortunate to have escaped that day, but getting out of the school was just a small first step towards safety and healing from the trauma experienced. The effects of that day would leave me numb and distrusting of authority and adults, as it would for many of my classmates.
That eroding trust would later completely dissolve after reports were made that teachers and students had made authorities aware of Harris and Klebold’s planned violence but none of them believed it was credible.
Healing from that trauma has taken years, and even now, I would not say that I am totally healed from the events of that day. I still feel its lasting effects and learning to recognize the difference between real and false triggers took a long time.
During times of stress, our fight or flight response triggers an adrenal reaction in the body. It makes us more aware of our surroundings — a status known as hypervigilance. It is natural and helps one react to perceived danger or threats aiding in response and survival.
Starting at the beginning of December, I watched as reports began to surface online about possible school shootings. A few reports came in locally on Dec 3 from the Eugene Police Department who responded to calls regarding suspicions that a student had a firearm at Willamette High School.
Those suspicions stemmed from an argument between a small group of students which escalated and threats of gun violence were made.
Another incident was later reported on Tuesday Dec 7, again, at Willamette High School after EPD received a report that a student concealed a firearm in their waistband. The school was placed on lockdown during the investigation.
In both instances, the police determined that there was no immediate threat to students or to the schools. These threats coincide with other acts of racism and hate that have spread online via social media.
As a result of viral videos spread via TikTok, schools across the country increased security as the anniversary of Sandy Hook neared. Some districts chose to cancel school on Dec. 17 and many parents kept their children home after vague threats were made calling for school shootings and other acts of violence.
Friday night, a collective sigh of relief was heard and felt as the day expired without a single act of school gun violence. There were multiple reports of students being arrested for having guns on school grounds, though. Reports came in from Florida, Virginia, Utah, and, again, in Oregon among others.
Some people claim that parents and educators overreacted to the videos. TikTok released a statement claiming that there was no evidence of threats being made, just evidence of rumors and mass hysteria. Some people think that this serves as a reason to do away with social media, especially TikTok, as they aid in the spread of rumors and fear.
I, however, feel differently as a result of the amplified messages and response. I, for one, am grateful that so many concerned citizens, students, parents, educators, and, yes, even law enforcement responded with action to those threats.
I found myself thinking, did our society finally react appropriately to threats of violence whether or not those threats were believable?
However, there is still that little voice in my head that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I read the statement “there is no credible threat” put out by law enforcement.
After all, plenty of reports were made to teachers, school administrators, and even to the police before Harris and Klebold committed mass murder and then suicide.
At that time, too many responsible adults thought “it can’t happen here,” and failed to respond. We saw a similar response when the supporters of then-President Trump planned the Jan. 6 Insurrection via social media.
I cannot say whether or not the threats made over TikTok were credible. What I can say, however, is that no school shootings occurred on Dec. 17 because, this time, both the threat of violence and alarm bells were amplified by the thousands upon thousands who partake in social media.
Due to social media, there were too many voices raising concern about a threat for it to be ignored. Appropriate action was taken and who knows how many lives were saved.
So while social media may be a format for hate and violence to spread, it also has made a lot of people pay attention to what’s going on around them. This “hypervigilance” may just help us learn from our past mistakes.
Doing away with social media will not stop hate, violence, or racism because ignoring our problems has never made them go away. Though many believe that social media is a danger to our society, I believe that it can be part of the solution.
For now, due to quick action those alarm bells have been quieted and I, personally, hope that as a new year approaches, the air will be filled with bells ringing joyously for peace, freedom, and the end of suffering.