Curtis Creek incident highlights danger of social media

By Lyn Riddle, The Union Democrat, @lynriddle1

Curtis Creek Principal Terri Bell’s message Thursday night to parents concerned about the school being closed due to a false social media threat was simple: safety first.

About 100 parents turned out before open house to hear from Bell and from Tuolumne County Sheriff James Mele about how a Snapchat message showing two hands devolved into three schools closing and victimizing a 14-year-old boy who did nothing wrong.

Mele offered a bit more detail about what happened. He said the boy had a fight with a family member and left home angry. The teen did nothing wrong and Mele likened it to a time when his angry sister left home and he was sent to find her.

Mele did not mention the boy’s name, but his office earlier this week had identified him as Timothy Kearn.

“This young person said nothing, did nothing,” Mele said. “He had a hard day and now he’s being pointed a finger at that he did something wrong. We as a society jumped to a conclusion.”

Later Mele said, “I feel bad for this young man.”

The situation began Monday evening when a sheriff’s deputy was at the home of the boy’s aunt taking a missing person’s report. The deputy learned while there that a burglary had taken place and a gun was stolen.

A teen posting on social media connected the two unrelated incidents and the story sprinted off like a game of telephone — unrecognizable as anything close to the truth in the end. Somehow the message became something was going to happen the next day at Curtis Creek.

Bell said in an interview after the meeting Thursday she was sent the social media post by a parent. She said Superintendent Sharon Johnson called Mele, who was a trustee on the Curtis Creek board when his now-grown children attended.

Bell said she and Johnson made the decision to close on Tuesday, sending the families of 450 students scrambling to find childcare, staying home from work or changing plans.

“If you don’t trust me, I’m so sorry,” Bell told the parents at the Thursday meeting. “We have hundreds of years of experience and we’re not going to jeopardize your child’s safety.”

Gold Rush Charter School also closed, and Foothill Leadership Academy was placed briefly on lockdown, according to a parent who said she had received a message from Foothill administrators saying all county schools were being targeted. Mele said he had not heard that and would look into it.

Foothill Director Ian McVey said Friday he put the school on lockdown to check out information he heard from a parent that "a kid had a gun and all the schools were closing." School had already started when he heard that information, which he quickly checked out with the Sheriff's Office and the county superintendent.

"They said proceed with caution," he said, and was assured there was no threat to his school. He lifted the lockdown after about 30 minutes, he said.

Most of the questions from parents were directed at Mele, who explained his office released the information that there was no threat as quickly as it could. He said it took time to run down the leads to get back to the source of the rumor.

“We wanted to make sure,” he said.

Prompted by a parent’s question, Mele also said there was no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the teen who made the original social media post, but the school was handling it administratively.

Fear continued among families even after the Sheriff’s Office said there was no threat. Bell said 60 students were absent on Wednesday and 17 on Thursday.

Mele said he would like to see a deputy assigned to the school campus or perhaps shared with other nearby schools. He suggested the parents lobby their Board of Supervisors member for the money to do so.

“A lot of this could have been averted if we had had a deputy here,” Mele said.

Borrowing a parent’s description of children as precious treasures, he asked for collaboration between home, school and law enforcement to keep students safe.

“There are a lot of minds here, a lot of smart people,” he said.

Mele and Bell cautioned parents to verify information before they pass anything on.

Bell said the school is using the event as a teaching moment.

“It’s a good example of what happened when hurtful things are said,” she said.

The boy was found in Oakdale on Tuesday night and reunited with family members. He won’t be going back to Curtis Creek.

This story has been edited to include comments from the director of Foothill Leadership Academy.

Contact Lyn Riddle at 209-588-4541 or lriddle@uniondemocrat.com .

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The Union Democrat
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