He’d be the type to bring a gun to school.”
These words – or something close – were allegedly uttered by a female student in a high school classroom last Friday in Girard, Pa., about one hour’s drive from Chardon, Ohio. The object of the comment was Austin Carner, a 17-year-old junior and outsider at the school who has had minor brushes with the law.
By Sunday night, those words had morphed via social media and text messages into an explicit threat that Carner was planning to come to Girard High School the next day – the one-week anniversary of the Chardon shooting in which three students died – with a gun.
Police went to his house Sunday afternoon, questioned him and searched his room, and school administrators fielded hundreds of phone calls from concerned parents on Monday. About half of Carner’s classmates decided not to risk it and either stayed home or left school early.
But when police left Carner’s house hours later, they weren’t toting weapons or leading the teen away in cuffs. They found nothing suspicious in their search and, after questioning Carner and his parents, decided that concerns that he was planning violence were false.
“It was a rumor run wild … that’s what social media does these days,” Girard School District Superintendent James Tracy told msnbc.com on Wednesday. “Nothing was actually said. … It’s like that old post office game, you know, where you tell a secret and by the 12th person it’s totally different. Magnify that times literally … thousands of people on social media, it really gets messed up.”
The cloud of suspicion that swept over Carner is the product of two strong currents sweeping through schools around the nation, experts say: heightened sensitivity over school violence and the impulse that leads teenagers and children to gossip or make insinuations about fellow students online without considering the real world consequences.
Carner’s mother, Yvette, said her son and daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, had hateful messages posted to their Facebook walls. They printed copies for authorities but by Monday afternoon the posters had removed their comments. Other parents even posted on social media sites about whether she and her husband had adequate parenting skills, she said.
One girl, who penned supportive posts on Sarah’s Facebook wall, wrote early Monday: “Hey girl, I hope you're okay. and your family. I don't know if you've been reading lately, but you're [sic] brother is hated by ALL of Girard. I'm absolutely sick of it.”
School officials and police were in contact as soon as they learned of the supposed threat.
“We received a call that there was a gun threat, a kid was going to bring a gun to school on Monday and shoot the place up,” said local Police Chief Nicholas VanDamia. “The boy denied making any of those threats. We searched his room, we searched the house. There was no weapon nor was there anything available for him to use as a weapon. … There was never a real threat, it was all fictitious.”
Austin Carner was unaware of the firestorm erupting on social media over the weekend, since he was away doing community service. He only learned about it when the police showed up at his door.
Carner said he has been bullied since the family moved to Girard from Michigan in 2006, with students calling him “retarded” (he has a learning disability due to apraxia), “ugly” and “ginger” because of his red hair.
Partly because it had gotten so bad, that Monday was meant to be his last day at Girard. He was already in the process of transferring to an alternative education program for students with behavioral issues where his educational needs could be better addressed.
“School has been rough. I get picked on every day, you know, a lot,” he told msnbc.com. “Sometimes, I just don’t want to go.”
But the cruel teasing didn’t prepare him for the shocking posts he saw when he logged onto Facebook, which included many variations of this message: “I’ve heard you’re going to bring a gun to school and shoot everyone.”