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Wisconsin schools contact parents, close over rumored TikTok challenge to threaten schools

Most schools say they haven't received targeted threats

The TikTok logo on a smartphone
This Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, photo, shows the TikTok logo on a smartphone in Tokyo. Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo

Many Wisconsin schools have sent letters to families — and some even closed or went virtual — because of rumors circulating that a TikTok challenge was calling on kids to make threats against their schools to get out of class on Friday.

TikTok, the video sharing social media network, said they have searched their platform and not found any content promoting violence at schools on Friday. There were videos discussing the rumor and warning people to stay safe.

The Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District closed schools on Friday after the district heard about a potential threat referencing Chippewa Falls late Thursday night. School officials, working with the state Department of Justice, found the threat wasn’t credible, but in combination with other potential threats, the recent school shooting in Oxford, Michigan and the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting, officials decided to close the schools.

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“Given what we knew, closing our schools was the safest option,” district officials wrote in a press release. “If any future threats are received, they will be evaluated on the information that is pertinent at the time and the District’s response will be determined accordingly.”

In Janesville, police department Lt. Joshua Norem said there had been no credible threats against area schools.

“This is not new to us, we’ve experienced this several times in recent history,” he said. “We experienced this with the devious licks challenge, we’ve experienced it with all the other TikTok challenges.”

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said the Wisconsin Statewide Intelligence Center out of the Department of Justice was actively monitoring for threats, but wasn’t aware of any additional incidents. He highlighted the Office of School Safety’s “Speak Up, Speak Out” tip line as being one of the ways Chippewa Falls first heard about its threat. The tip line has an online submission form as well as a phone number, 1-800-MY-SUSO-1.

“It’s always important that schools be paying attention to safety issues,” Kaul said. “It’s also critical that kids are able to keep learning, and that their education isn’t interrupted unless it needs to be.”

Still, schools say they have to take even rumored threats seriously.

Suzanne Nickolai is the safe environment program manager for the Archdiocese of Wisconsin, which has 101 Catholic schools in the state. She said none of the schools got threats or indications of violence at their specific schools — but all of them still have to play it safe.

“We have to take every concern as seriously as possible until we know that it’s not serious,” she said. “We’d much rather have it be where we send an email, and it’s a lot of emails that go out that no one ends up having to take action on, versus not sending something out and then having something happen.”

The Racine Police Department said it’s brought in two children related to threats at Racine schools that were deemed “not credible.”

In Green Bay, four students have been charged related to the three threats made against Preble High School this week, starting on Sunday. Superintendent Stephen Murley said that they don’t seem related to the purported TikTok challenge, and are more likely a response to the Michigan school shooting.

“In three days, we had about what you would get over the course of the week, so this was about as far outside the norm as you could get,” he said. “We had a very direct threat communicated Sunday evening, and then we had two more over the course of the week.”

The consequences for making threats are substantial — kids can be charged with making terrorist threats, and then are subject to school discipline on top of legal action.

“I think most kids have no idea that there might be consequences until something like this actually happens,” said Murley. “They really only understand it when they see their friends arrested, charged, perhaps removed from school, they may face charges, they may face fines — but kids, they cycle in and out of our district, memories are short, and we anticipate that we’ll have to deal with this again sometime in the future.”

Preble High School went virtual on Thursday and Friday in response to the threats. The school is also taking extra safety measures next week — limiting the number of entries and exits, having kids bring only the materials they need for school that day instead of their usual large backpacks and handing out drawstring bags for them to use, and checking IDs.

Schools are particularly worried about how to handle threats with the appropriate caution while also not traumatizing kids even more following two years of unprecedented isolation, loss and stress. Although Green Bay’s threats were limited to only one of the district’s 42 schools, Murley said the worry can reverberate out to family members in other schools, and to the community as a whole — especially on top of safety drills and other precautions.

“They know what to do in terms of fight or flight, they know what a rallying point is, they know all these terms that create a context for them that may imply that being out in public isn’t safe, going to school isn’t safe, being at the mall isn’t safe,” he said. “I worry about the shadow that this casts on them.”

At St. Sebastian School in Milwaukee, administrators told parents they would have kids “open their backpacks for a Christmas treat” to allow staff at the entrance doors to discreetly check their bags without causing unnecessary worry. Concerns about COVID-19 has also prompted other schools to rethink the way they drill kids, and to look for ways that don’t overly threaten their feelings of safety.

To report a threat, or concern about general school safety, visit https://speakup.widoj.gov/. You can also issue a report by calling 1-800-MY-SUSO-1.

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