Rumor mill at Spoto High School gets boost from Facebook

RIVERVIEW — A rumor of impending violence ran rampant the other day at an east Hillsborough high school.

It flitted through classrooms and nearby campuses before finding the ears of administrators. It prompted calls home to parents and the posting of more than a dozen security guards and deputies inside the school gates.

The response was quick — just like the rumor's spread.

Call it the Facebook Effect.

"I remember the old days, when it would take information maybe a week or two to pass around," said Spoto High senior Andrew Thomas. "With Facebook, you post a status, and 30 seconds later someone you don't even know has seen your update."

Thomas arrived at Spoto on May 28 to a scene prompted by that phenomenon.

Hillsborough sheriff's deputies had swarmed the campus in response to a rumor that students from Durant High School were plotting retaliation against Spoto kids, prompted by the shooting death of a Durant senior, a sheriff's spokeswoman said.

On May 22, a graduation party at the Winthrop Barn and Theatre in Riverview turned violent when deputies say Spoto High senior Khayri McCray fired into a crowd of people during a fight. Two people were injured, and Devante Lamar Dallas was killed. McCray faces second-degree murder charges.

"Ever since the incident at the party there have been rumors of retaliation," said school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. "It spread through social media."

Thomas said he hadn't heard the rumors before he saw the influx of deputies. He wasn't sure why they were there "until I saw it on Facebook," Thomas said.

The 18-year-old with a baseball scholarship to Florida A&M University considers his life free of drama, but he has seen plenty of it on the Web.

Gossip, flirting, photos and fighting: It gets passed around all day in high schools, where everyone is watching.

"You see it on Facebook, then you text a friend, then the whole city knows, basically," Thomas said.

That includes the Sheriff's Office, whose school resource officers do their best to stay plugged into the grapevine.

Some have their own Facebook accounts and watch for threatening posts. But deputies depend on parents and students to alert them when a potentially dangerous tidbit scrolls across the news feed, said Lt. Rick Hernandez, a school resource officer supervisor.

"To actually think they have the time to spend on the computer going over Facebook, I mean, you've got to think, some of these schools have 1,500 to 2,500 students," Hernandez said. "That's kind of an impossible task."

Hernandez meets with other school resource officer supervisors several times a day to discuss student issues. In the last few years, social media has become a hot topic.

In some ways, he said, it makes officers' jobs easier, he said. Rumors spread more quickly and have a wider reach, which means deputies hear about them sooner than before.

Planned fights are broken up before they start. Cyberbullying prompts counseling. Deputies obtain search warrants for bedrooms of kids who brag about weapons and intentions to use them.

"People have a lot more courage online," said another supervisor, Sgt. Laura Regan.

Maybe kids are just venting or want attention. Maybe they don't mean it.

But the deputies take threats seriously.

The supervisors said they haven't noticed an uptick in arrests, but school resource officers are definitely involved in more interventions than in past years.

"It's like students don't know how to communicate with each other," Regan said.

Chris McCarty, a University of Florida survey director who studies social networks, said part of the problem is that Facebook and similar sites eliminate natural barriers people normally build in relation to each other.

"We all kind of get along because we have ways of controlling who knows what about who," McCarty said.

While a quicker information flow has its positives, he said information taken out of context can get blown out of proportion, hurt feelings and start fights.

"Rumors that have no substance get spread very quickly and can be very damaging very quickly," McCarty said.

In the case of the recent security scare at Spoto, the rumors were in fact deemed unfounded. The deputies left when the school day ended, and only one or two extra officers will likely patrol the campus till the end of the year.

But if more rumors show up in cyberspace, they'll be ready.

"It's amazing how much information our guys and girls can get before anything materializes," said Lt. Hernandez. "And that's what our job is."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Rumor mill at Spoto High School gets boost from Facebook 06/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 12:36am]

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