After a high school student posted a video suicide note on YouTube, then killed herself early this week, officials from the 101,000-student Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., temporarily shut down school-based access to YouTube and Twitter, prompting renewed attention to the role of social media in responding to school tragedies.
"The safety and security of our students is our number one priority," said district spokeswoman Mandy Simpson in a statement. Removing access to the sites, Simpson wrote, "was an effort to ensure that students who are emotionally impacted could get the help they needed as we worked with officials to address the situation through the most appropriate and efficient channels."
Simpson said that 20 grief counselors were dispatched Tuesday to Louisville's Male High School, and access to the sites was quickly restored.
H. Eric Sparks, the director of the American School Counselor Association, said the handling of social media in crisis-response situations is an issue that is "just coming up on the radar screens" of many schools.
"Instances where students are making [suicidal] threats or comments through social media seem to be growing," Sparks said in an interview. "Being able to respond to that, having plans in place, is an important piece for schools to have in their crisis plans."
In instances where there is two-way online communication between a troubled student and a school official, Sparks said, best practices include directing the student to a hotline or other help, calling authorities, and trying to get an intervention in place as soon as possible. (The Suicide Prevention Resource Center is among the groups that have made guidelines available.)
More typical, though, might be a situation in which a student tells an adult they saw suicidal threats or worrisome comments on Facebook or Twitter. In those types of situations, he said, having plans and strategies in place for communicating with the individual in crisis, contacting parents, and marshaling other resources is key.
Richard Lieberman, a California school psychologist and the lead consultant for suicide prevention for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said it's also important that adults not be afraid of social media when working to prevent and respond to tragedies.
On the front end, Lieberman said, social media "is where kids are gathering, so that's where we have to be," especially with efforts to identify at-risk and isolated children, provide supports, and offer safe messaging. Social media also provides an opportunity to train students to work as "cultural brokers," he said, serving as the "eyes and ears" for adults on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and the like.
And in the wake of a tragedy, Lieberman said, "when you're dealing with high school kids, the first job is to facilitate their own social support system, not run in and take over." In many cases, that means helping students to leverage existing supports via social media.
Sparks described shutting down school-based access to social media in the wake of a tragedy as "sort of a standard thing to do" and "a step that can help minimize the disturbance and students' exposure to information and threats that parents may not want them to see." But given the prevalence of digital devices and online interactions, he said, the effectiveness of such strategies can be limited.
"You do what you can," Sparks said.
In addition to the type of grief counseling and direct-service support that Jefferson County provided to students, districts are also advised to communicate with parents to give them suggestions and ideas for how to respond to students. It's also important that both parents and educators work proactively to understand when and how their students are using social media, Sparks said.
The Jefferson County tragedy began Monday evening when a student posted a video to YouTube. It was taken down Tuesday afternoon, according to media reports.
"Generally speaking, we don't want to glorify any particular situation," Sparks said of the extensive news coverage of the events in Louisville. "But at the same time, there is a need to know that this is a new issue that schools, communities, and parents need to be aware of."