Poughkeepsie high, middle schools return to in-person learning Thursday; 2 girls arrested

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The Poughkeepsie City School District plans to resume in-person instruction Thursday in its high and middle schools, and said it plans to have additional support for students, after a social media threat prompted a shift to remote learning.

The district says a 15-year-old girl was responsible for the threats, the first of which was discovered Sunday. The schools have been remote for the first three days of the week.

The district and said it hopes to have additional crisis specialists from the Dutchess County Department available to students in the high and middle schools Thursday, in addition to its own staff.

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The 15-year-old, who was identified after police say she made a second threat on Tuesday, faces four counts of making a terroristic threat, a felony. She was released to her parents after being given an appearance ticket for Dutchess County Family Court.

Police on Tuesday also identified an 11-year-old girl as the source of an unrelated threat. She also was issued an appearance ticket for family court.

The district has stressed the need for parents and community members to be vigilant in reporting any possible threats against the school they may see online. The district on Tuesday also activated its new system for monitoring online communication within its own platforms.

"As seen across the country, the use of social media as a form of communication among school is the topic of concern that parents, educators, law makers, and others are confronting," Superintendent Eric Rosser said. "Unfortunately across the country social media is being used as a tool to cause harm to others."

Last week, five unions representing the district's staff, including the Poughkeepsie Public Schools Teachers Association, issued a statement calling "on the district to take immediate action to strengthen school safety" and include school and community leaders in the discussion of how to assist students "with the social-emotional needs they are carrying with them to class each day."

Rosser said the district recently issued a survey asking staff to share their concerns regarding what the district can do to develop and strengthen the culture and climate for both students and staff. The same survey will be sent to parents no later than Friday, he said.

“These social media threats have added to the complexity of a challenging year where school administrators, teachers, and staff have been working extremely hard to acclimate all students back into the school environment,” Rosser said in a statement from the district.

What happened

According to the school district, the initial threat discovered Sunday evening “referenced that on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday there will be a shooting at the middle and high school.”

On Monday, the district said the threat appeared to be a “prank,” but noted “all incidents of threats are taken very seriously” in transitioning to remote learning. It then decided to stay remote Tuesday and Wednesday as the investigation continued.

City police said they were alerted by the FBI of a threat made on Snapchat Tuesday at 2:51 a.m., which said "all the schools in Poughkeepsie were going to be shot up."

Police said Snapchat notified the FBI and identified the router used to make the post, which led them to the 11-year-old.

Later Tuesday, police said a community member reported a social media threat on Tuesday, which led to the 12-year-old’s arrest. Police did not specify the nature of the Tuesday threat.

Police noted they are continuing to investigate and encouraged anyone with information on the threats to call 845-451-7577.

What the district says

The incidents came less than month after two threats were made against the schools in the span of a week.

The schools were shut down on Feb. 22 and Feb. 23 following a social media threat about a school shooting, and on Feb. 24 a 12-year-old student at the middle school was accused of threatening to bring a gun to school.

Following the February closures, the district announced enhanced safety measures that included “additional central office presence,” and school resource officers and safety monitors in each school. The district also noted it invested in Gaggle, an online safety monitoring system “that will flag concerning content and bring it to the attention of staff.”

The district on Wednesday announced Gaggle was activated Tuesday, after it had been in a testing phase. Gaggle, which monitors the district’s online platforms and not social media, did not assist in either arrest. However, the district noted “multiple alerts have come in that have been flagged for” intervention. The district said all messages are monitored and judged to be either a “violation, questionable content” or a “possible student situation.”

“District personnel can see the actual content of the messages/photos and intervene, providing counseling or other mitigation to prevent problems from escalating,” the district said.

The district noted the anonymous tip line associated with Gaggle, is still in its testing phase.

The district’s struggles this school year included multiple fights in which police were called to the school to intervene, and a November incident in which shots were fired outside the high school. However, some district students say steps taken by the administration in the days following the shooting set the school community on a calmer path.

“With the identification of the young lady who is alleged to have made the social media threats, the entire school community is now able to focus on rebuilding the culture and climate of both Poughkeepsie Middle School and Poughkeepsie High School,” Rosser said in the statement.

This article originally appeared on Poughkeepsie Journal: Poughkeepsie high, middle schools reopening for instruction Thursday