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Apr 18, 2017 5:38 PM

NH leaders work to combat threats of violence on social media, starting with students


Incidents over the last two weeks have proven ways social media can be a dangerous place.

The popularity of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others raise concerns about how and why Americans are using the platforms.

In New Hampshire, officials and local leaders take those incidents seriously and have already integrated social media into their daily procedures so they can detect and investigate potential threats.

But detecting them isn't always enough, and those leaders have learned the key to stopping threats is educating, starting with young people throughout the Granite State.

Threats of violence in the spotlight

Over the Easter weekend, a Cleveland man posted a series of videos on his person Facebook page, culminating in a video where he apparently shoots and kills an elderly man.

Steve Stephens first posted a video in which he discusses his intent to commit murder. The murder can be seen in a second video. Finally, Stephens took to Facebook Live and confessed to the shooting, according to Cleveland news sources.

On Tuesday, authorities confirmed Stephens shot and killed himself in northern Pennsylvania, ending a two-day manhunt for the suspected murderer.

Closer to home, a New Hampshire teen was arrested last week for allegedly threatening his classmates in an Instagram video.

The 15-year-old boy is a student at Nashua High School South. Police said they received several complaints about the post, which allegedly showed guns and was directed toward both the school and individual students.

While officials in Cleveland are still investigating the circumstances around the broadcasted murder, the reaction to the Nashua post suggested bullying may have inspired the student to act.

The situation also escalated when police said Instagram users started commenting on the video, telling the student who posted the threat that he should kill himself.

Both police and school administrators praised the school community for taking the threat seriously and reporting it.

Still, the incident sheds a light on a dark trend in just one of the many ways social media is used.

Police ask users to 'see something, say something'

Capt. Denise Roy of the Merrimack Police Department said when the popularity of social media skyrocketed a few years ago, her department joined to stay connected to the community.

They're not the only ones, and Roy explained how social media has become a vital part of several police investigations.

"Most of the time, we start with people who are friends with the poster. Sometimes it's easier to go to a suspect's friends list and privately reach out to people using social media," she said. "It's amazing how much information you can get just by talking to people."

She believes most people use social media do so responsibly and want to do the right thing when they see something suspicious.

"Social media can be used in horrific ways," she added, commenting on the Cleveland murder. "Sometimes people see things, and they're afraid. People don't know if it'll become truth."

Roy said Merrimack Police have investigated many cases involving social media threats, even one very similar to the one in Nashua. She called some of them "alarming."

"It's easy to hide behind the computer," she said. "We really encourage people if they see something that makes the hair on the back of their neck stand up, consider reporting it. It never hurts to check in with us."

Social media responsibility starts in NH schools

According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teens reported going online daily, and 71 percent use more than one social media site.

Some New Hampshire schools, in response, are taking steps to make sure students use the Internet appropriately, especially when communicating with each other.

"The middle school years are a critical time for development. We try to focus on positive behaviors and values throughout the year, including an extensive effort this year regarding how we behave, how we treat others, what we do for others and more," said Brendan McCafferty, principal at Hillside Middle School in Manchester.

On Tuesday, the school hosted an anti-bullying rally for more than 500 students in grades 5-8, contributing to the school's year-long effort to combat bullying in all forms.

"We are constantly trying to improve the culture and climate for our kids and staff members," McCafferty said.

Manchester business owner Tyler Sullivan led the rally to teach students how to address bullying, both in person and online, using five steps: make it your business, be a friend, make kindness go viral, get your squad on it, and spread the love.

The program shared first-person accounts of bullying incidents and showed students how to stand up for themselves and each other.

"The big thing that kids need to walk away from today is how they are going to help when they see somebody else being bullied," Sullivan said. "I want the students to hopefully learn from the examples that we shared today and implement those behaviors to help eradicate bullying."

Team members from Manchester's Chill Spa have also been involved with the effort, regularly meeting with small groups of students since the beginning of the year.

"It’s not just about being kind. It’s how we respond to negativity, and it’s not easy," said Crissy Kantor, owner of Chill Spa.

Kantor and stylist Coco Lever advise the meetings, which students named the Killin' It With Kindness Club in the hopes of sparking an anti-bullying movement among their peers.

"Every six weeks or so we’ll meet, and in between meetings they’re doing other [projects]," said Lever, who experienced online bullying herself as an adult. "We go and give them ideas and just check in to see how everyone's doing and where they're at."

Kantor and Lever said the students have been receptive to the meetings and are spreading what they learned to their classmates.

Part of that includes spreading positive messages on social media.

In Merrimack, officials have also found speaking openly with students about bullying and internet safety effective.

"We do see bullying online. It’s very easy for kids to say things online that they wouldn’t face to face," Roy said. "Our officers regularly go to trainings, and some go into the schools to talk about the importance of using the Internet responsibly."

Roy said it's through these efforts that students build trust with the officers. They hope that students, like the ones who reported the threat in Nashua, feel comfortable reporting any suspicious behavior as soon as they see it.

That first report, she added, is most critical.

"Just coming forward and talking to us," she said, "can help prevent tragedies."

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