Unsubstantiated rumors over social media about a runaway teen have been identified as the primary culprit prompting the closure of Curtis Creek Elementary School and Gold Rush Charter School on Tuesday.
In a press release Wednesday afternoon, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office said an unidentified teen’s comment on social media, which associated runaway Timothy Kearn, 14, with the burglary of guns that had occurred earlier in the day, as the lightning rod that sparked a hysteria of unverified speculation.
“Social media is a wonderful tool, but it is a tool where there are no checks and balances. When somebody posts something, it is the reader’s responsibility to fact-find these things,” said Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele. “We know that the publisher on a lot of these posts are not fact-finding their information.”
Mele added that he believed that the original poster of the rumor had “no intention” to cause a panic, but he also emphasized that the public should seek out credible sources to confirm information.
“On a positive note, I appreciate the community's concern,” he said. “There has to be some trust on the community’s part. We are here to help the community.”
The Sheriff’s Office was emphatic in their report that Kearn was not associated with the burglary, nor did he make threats to harm anyone.
Kearn, who Sgt. Deborah Moss at the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office called a “simple runaway” not associated with any crimes, was found Tuesday evening in the Oakdale area and was subsequently reunited with his family.
Kearn was reported missing Monday evening by his aunt, with whom he lives in the Crystal Falls area of Sonora.
Curtis Creek Elementary School administrators made the decision to close for the school day at 6:45 a.m., Superintendent Sharon Johnson said on Tuesday. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday about how the decision was made.
School officials have scheduled a parent meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the school gym to address the situation. Sheriff's Office officials are expected to attend, according to a message sent out toe parents Wednesday night.
Gold Rush Charter School made the decision to close at 7:20 a.m. after the school was contacted by staff from Curtis Creek Elementary School, Principal/Director Ronald Hamilton on Tuesday.
About 452 students attend Curtis Creek Elementary and 202 students attend Gold Rush Charter School.
Moss said the decision to close the school was made by school administration and not by the Sheriff’s Office.
Mele indicated that his office had been aware of the circulating social media post late Monday night and had investigators evaluating the credibility of the statements before the school closure.
“It was because of the social media that it took on life of its own,” Mele said. “From that post the decision was made — for the safety of the students and to give the parents a sense of comfort — to close the school.”
Teachers and administrators were also asked to leave campus because of the school closure.
In an email message that was also posted to the Curtis Creek Elementary website Tuesday, school administrators said an “unforeseen safety concern” prompted the school closure.
Mele added that his office does not have a specific deputy assigned to watch social media, but that his team monitors “ social media the best we can” to observe potential threats.
In the wake of the social media posts, even though the Sheriff’s Office believed the claims to be false, deputies performed a search of Curtis Creek as a matter of protocol, Mele said.
“Several times during the year” the Sheriff’s Office receives reports of “fictitious bomb threats” to public buildings, Mele said.
“We know and we believe 90 percent of the time that those phone calls are fictitious, but we still go through the protocol of evacuating the building, going through the building and making sure there are no suspicious packages or items,” Mele said. “And we do that just for the simple fact of ‘what if?’ Same thing with this case.”