U.S. schools boost security after online posts warn of Friday violence

By Julia Harte

(Reuters) – U.S. schools and law enforcement authorities responded to vague warnings of violence at schools on Friday with bulletins to parents, heightened security and, in a few cases, canceled classes.

The bulletins to parents largely referred to postings on the social media app Tik Tok.

One of the nation’s largest school districts, in Florida’s Palm Beach County, said in its letter on Friday that local police were aware of a “video circulating on Tik Tok nationally, encouraging violence in schools.”

Tik Tok said on Friday that it had been unable to find any credible threats on its platform, only “alarmist warnings” of rumored threats. Palm Beach County Schools did not respond to a request for details about the alleged video.

“We continue to aggressively search for any such content on our platform, but we are deeply concerned that the proliferation of local media reports on an alleged trend that has not been found on the platform could end up inspiring real world harm,” Tik Tok said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday that it did not have information indicating any specific, credible threats to schools either, but encouraged communities to “remain alert.”

The warnings began circulating this week as the United States was reeling from the deadliest school shooting of 2021, a November shooting at a Michigan high school that left four students dead and seven people wounded. It was the latest in a decades-long string of lethal American school shootings.

Most schools and law enforcement officials noted in messages to parents on Thursday and Friday that this week’s warnings of attacks were not specifically directed at their school, nor were they credible.

Multiple schools around the country canceled classes on Friday, though it was unclear whether the cancellations were connected to the perceived Tik Tok threats.

In Gilroy, California, the superintendent of the unified school district announced online that classes at Gilroy High School would be canceled on Friday because of threats of violence directed at the high school on “several social media accounts.”

Gilroy High School did not respond to questions about the threats.

Other schools did not cancel classes but heightened security. The Fitchburg, Massachusetts, public school system said in a Thursday news release that police would be present at each school in the district on Friday as an added precaution because of an alleged Tik Tok post threatening “every school in the USA even elementary.”

The Fitchburg public school system did not respond to questions about the post.

(Reporting by Julia Harte; Editing by Howard Goller)

Partisan war over teaching history and racism stokes tensions in U.S. schools

By Gabriella Borter and James Oliphant

ASHBURN, Virginia (Reuters) – The school board of Virginia’s wealthy Loudoun County had planned to hold a routine meeting to close out the school year. Instead, it was pandemonium.

Many of the hundreds of parents who flooded the auditorium in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night were there to accuse the schools of teaching their kids that racism in America is structural and systemic – which the board denies. Some signs read, “Education not indoctrination” and “You don’t end racism by teaching it.”

The evening grew so heated that the board walked out of the room, leaving sheriff’s deputies to disperse the crowd.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Wayde Byard, the Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman for more than two decades, after deputies took two attendees out of the room in handcuffs.

Loudoun has been roiled for months by accusations that it has embraced critical race theory, a school of thought that maintains that racism is ingrained in U.S. law and institutions and that legacies of slavery and segregation have created an uneven playing field for Black Americans.

The school system says it is simply training teachers, the majority of whom are white, to be “culturally responsive” to serve the county’s increasingly diverse student population.

The tensions in Loudoun echo a larger battle playing out across the country. As Americans tackle racial and social injustice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last year, several Republican-led states including Florida, Georgia and Texas have enacted new rules to limit teaching about the role of racism in the United States.

The idea that a once-obscure academic doctrine is infiltrating public schools has become a rallying cry for conservatives. From school boards and parent activists to governors and lawmakers, they say tenets of the theory – popularly known as CRT – are being used to indoctrinate children that America is a racist country. Fueled by right-wing media, the conflict has mushroomed into a national debate over how – and which version of – U.S. history is taught in schools.

Critics argue there is no evidence CRT is being taught in most – if any – public schools. Instead, they say, it has become a handy red flag to wave at any efforts to promote racial equity and better outcomes for non-white students.

Several teachers and education experts say they worry that rules banning CRT or placing limits on how to talk about racism generally could have a chilling effect on efforts to teach Black history, including the legacy of slavery and race relations.

Vanessa Skipper, an English teacher and vice president of the Brevard County teachers union in Florida, said the state ban “set a dangerous precedent for teachers.”

“It’s our job to present the factual parts of history, which are messy and dark, and allow the students to come to their own conclusions and think critically,” Skipper said.


For an example of what some states are doing, look to Georgia, where the state Board of Education earlier this month passed a non-binding resolution forbidding the teaching of concepts “that the country is racist, one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.”

Cobb County, an affluent, predominately white suburb northeast of Atlanta, soon followed with its own resolution banning the teaching of CRT.

In Loudoun, which has seen a massive influx of immigrants in the last decade into what was once rural, white-dominated northern Virginia, parent groups are trying to recall six of nine school board members for supporting diversity and equity efforts in public and on social media.

Those efforts include teacher and staff training materials “related to addressing opportunity and achievement gaps, systemic oppression, and implicit bias.”

“It’s anti-white,” said Scott Mineo, a parent who launched an advocacy group, Parents Against Critical Theory. “It takes a negative position against the United States.”

Beth Barts, a board member who has voted in support of equity efforts, defended the initiatives as necessary to serve the student body, which is 43% white, 25% Asian, 18% Hispanic and 7% Black.

Big questions remain over how new measures will be enforced, given that in some cases they are vague and that CRT itself has been subject to varying interpretations.

When Florida’s Board of Education, whose seven members were appointed by Republican governors, this month announced its ban on teaching CRT, it said the theory “distorts” historical events like the Civil War.

Asked by Reuters to elaborate, Governor Ron DeSantis’ office pointed to what it called examples of “race essentialism” being taught in school districts nationwide, even if it may not be called “critical race theory”. It did not define either term.

“We do not want this divisive ideology in Florida classrooms,” said spokesperson Christina Pushaw.


Republican Party officials and strategists say they increasingly view the controversy as central to their efforts to paint the Democratic Party as having been taken over by its left wing.

Focusing on the issue could help Republicans win back college-educated suburban voters in next year’s elections that will decide control of the U.S. Congress, particularly women they have lost to Democrats in recent cycles, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican operative in southwest Florida.

“This is the issue that will get suburbanites with you,” O’Connell said. He cited an Economist/YouGov poll conducted last week that showed that 76% of independent voters hold a unfavorable view of CRT.

Democrats say Republicans are seeking to stoke cultural conflict because they lack an affirmative policy agenda in Washington after losing the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2020.

“The Republican Party is hellbent on making up fake issues to divide our country,” said Daniel Wessel, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

On Monday, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, released an online toolkit it said would help activists use public information requests to help identify whether CRT is being taught in their schools.

Meanwhile, public school teachers, as state employees, enjoy relatively little leeway in terms of what can they say in the classroom and lack full protections for freedom of speech, said Suzanne Eckes, a professor of education at Indiana University.

In Georgia’s Cobb County, a member of the school board who abstained from voting on the CRT resolution, Jaha Howard, said he is worried teachers are “going to have to operate under a banner of fear” and will hesitate to talk about race issues or dark parts of U.S. history.

“What supports white supremacy more than making rules to say you can’t talk about racism or white supremacy?” he said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and James Oliphant, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Sonya Hepinstall)

COVID-19 mask mandates latest flashpoint for U.S. schools

By Sharon Bernstein and Colleen Jenkins

(Reuters) – Two days after the school board in Johnston, Iowa, decided last week to keep requiring mask wearing in schools to prevent coronavirus transmission, the state’s Republican governor signed a law that immediately prohibited such mandates.

The reaction in Johnston was swift and sharply divided, with some parents applauding the move to make masks optional for the waning days of the school year and others calling it dangerous given the continued threat from COVID-19.

“I just find it super disappointing and selfish,” said local parent Sara Parris, who is still sending her two sons to class with face coverings.

The debate over masks in schools is yet another flashpoint for U.S. educators grappling with how to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic. Friction around returning to in-person learning has given way to heated disagreements over whether masks should be shed for good.

Iowa and Texas have banned school districts from requiring kids to wear masks on campus. Similar moves are under consideration in other states and local jurisdictions, spurred in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying on May 13 that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most situations.

With children under age 12 not yet eligible for vaccinations, however, the CDC recommends face coverings in educational settings at least through the end of the school year. While children are less likely to suffer severe COVID-19, they are not without risk and can readily transmit the virus.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said on Twitter that her state was “putting parents back in control of their child’s education and protecting the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions.”

Responding to the governor via Twitter, Democratic state Senator Sarah Trone Garriott said: “I’m hearing from lots of parents reporting that their children are being bullied for wearing a mask. Are you going to stand up for their personal choice?”

At the Johnston school board meeting last week, most parents spoke in favor of making masks optional, with one mother calling masking requirements for children abusive. Other parents emailed school officials asking for mask mandates to remain in place.

“It’s been difficult to try to find the right balance,” Justin Allen, president of the school board and a parent of two high school students, said in an interview.

“Just when you think you are in kind of a comfort zone and you think you can focus on education for awhile, something else emerges and you have another controversial issue to address.”


In North Carolina, parents opposed to mandatory face coverings staged a protest in Wake County after Democratic Governor Roy Cooper lifted mask requirements in some situations but not in schools.

“Parents should determine if their child should wear a mask, not school systems or the governor,” parent Nazach Snapp wrote in a letter to the Wake County school board.

Others urged the board to continue its mask requirement.

“Given that vaccines are not available yet for children under 12, I implore you to continue to require students in middle and elementary settings to wear masks,” wrote parent Mimosa Hines.

A study published by the CDC on Friday showed that in elementary schools that required masks, transmission of COVID-19 was lower by 37% than in schools where masks were optional. The study, which included 169 elementary schools in Georgia that were open for in-person instruction, also showed improved ventilation slowed virus transmission.

It advised increasing, not decreasing, the use of masks and ventilation in schools.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association, two unions that represent a total of about 5 million teachers and staff, have urged states to keep their mask requirements at least through the end of this school year.

While nearly 90% of AFT’s members have been vaccinated against COVID-19, many of their students have not.

U.S. regulators earlier this month authorized use of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE for children ages 12 to 15. It is still being tested for use in younger children.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said Texas and Iowa “jumped the gun” in removing their mask requirements. Politics around masks, along with unclear guidance from the CDC, have left teachers in an awkward position, she said.

“Teachers don’t want to become the mask police,” she said. “It’s time to let us actually teach.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. schools unlikely to mandate COVID-19 vaccines anytime soon

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) -Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine was authorized for use in children as young as 12 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week – but do not expect schools to require shots for students anytime soon given public hesitation and political hurdles.

State governments for the most part can order a vaccine be required for a child to attend a K-12 public school, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a University of California-Hastings law professor who researches school mandates and the legal issues around vaccines.

In all but a handful of states, a measure must pass the full legislature to be added to the mandatory vaccine list, Reiss said. No state government has mandated COVID-19 immunizations for schools, she added.

There is increased hesitancy over the shots because some of them rely on the newer mRNA technology and have been authorized on an emergency-use basis. Early studies also indicate children are far less susceptible to grave health complications from COVID-19, though they are not without risk and can transmit the disease.

Reiss said it is highly unlikely state legislatures will push through mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for children this year.

“It takes political capital, and my bet is that legislators will not even try until they can do it for children aged 5 and up,” she said. “They will not want to go through the process twice.”

It is clear proponents of mandates could face opposition. Even before vaccinations were approved for younger adolescents, Republican lawmakers in dozens of statehouses filed bills seeking to block COVID-19 vaccination mandates, mostly arguing the vaccines are too new to force people to take against their will.

In Kansas, Republican state Senator Mark Steffen, an anesthesiologist, crafted a bill that would strip the state’s department of health of its power to add a new shot to the existing list of required vaccines. The bill remains in committee.

“It’s a vaccine that is experimental, a vaccine that is gene-manipulative,” Steffen said during a March hearing on the bill. “Its long-term dangers won’t be fully known for decades.”

Researchers from Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers universities, who are part of the COVID States Project, surveyed nearly 22,000 people nationwide in April and found that over a quarter of mothers were “extremely unlikely” to vaccinate their children.

Because of such reluctance, education leaders should not focus on mandating shots, said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT)union.

“Right now it’s about convincing people of their efficacy,” she said of vaccines. “We have to build trust and confidence, particularly amongst our Black and brown parents who have borne the brunt of COVID.”


Weingarten and others representing school leaders and staff noted wide agreement that vaccines are key to a more normal school experience.

In a sweeping policy speech given on Thursday in Washington, Weingarten said in-person learning, five days a week across the country must take place in the fall.

She said that ATF polling of parents shows that vaccines – along with social distancing, masking and testing – were mandatory to winning parents’ confidence in sending kids back to school. Recent polling by the ATF and the NAACP shows 94% of parents would be comfortable with their children attending school in-person with those safety measures in place.

The Los Angeles Unified school district, the second-largest in the country with nearly 650,000 students, has been among the most proactive on vaccines for pupils. Fifteen vaccination clinics are located in L.A. schools.

Superintendent Austin Beutner said during a Monday news conference that he wants a vaccine available to every middle and high school student as soon as possible.

Some private schools are moving ahead with mandates. In Connecticut, students attending the 5th-12th grade St. Luke’s school in New Canaan learned on Tuesday that they must take the COVID-19 vaccine to attend in the fall.

Mark Davis, the head of St. Luke’s, said the mandate was made in conjunction with a health task force, largely composed of parents who are physicians.

Key to the policy was guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people do not need to quarantine if exposed to the coronavirus. That means kids would almost certainly remain in the classroom full-time if they got the shot.

Most parents of the school’s nearly 600 students overwhelmingly support the mandate, Davis said, adding that four or five families expressed concerns.

Davis said he understood COVID-19 has set off pitched debates, but pointed to the long history of mandated vaccines for diseases such as polio and whooping cough and the benefits of in-class learning for kids.

“It’s such a shame that the issue of vaccines has become politicized,” Davis said. “It’s a critical step toward a much-needed return to the school experience that we all yearn for.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Donna Bryson, Aurora Ellis and Bill Berkrot)

‘Wild West’: Caution urged on facial recognition rollout in U.S. schools

By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A lack of regulation about the use of facial recognition technology at U.S. schools has alarmed education officials and lawmakers who say more research is needed before rolling it out widely.

Schools are fertile territory for the technology as high-profile profile shootings in recent years have exacerbated officials’ and parents’ fears about safety, security experts said.

“Right now, it’s like the Wild West (when it comes to facial recognition technology),” said Mike Matranga, executive director of security at Texas City Independent School District, which has installed facial recognition software at all of its schools.

“Any tool in the hands of the wrong person, is bad. That’s why we have to have good policies in place,” Matranga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rise of cloud computing and AI technologies have popularised the use of facial recognition globally, from tracking criminals to unlocking smartphones.

But as cameras appear at unlikely spots across the globe, activists raise fears about lost privacy and say society might be on the doorstep of a dystopia where Big Brother sees all.

Two U.S. Democratic senators introduced a bill in February that would place a moratorium on federal use of facial recognition until lawmakers regulate it.

But regulation has yet to be introduced for its use in schools.

Proponents say the technology can enhance school security by identifying individuals deemed by schools or law enforcement as potential threats.

The software takes statistical measurements of people’s facial features.

It then compares them to databases of faces that schools have created – which typically include local sexual predators, students who have been expelled, parents who have lost custody of their children.

But critics argue facial recognition cameras have potential for abuse and should be thoroughly researched before rolling out the technology on minors.

“We shouldn’t be using our kids as guinea pigs,” said Monica Wallace, a New York state Democratic legislator.

Wallace introduced a bill late last year that would force schools in her state’s government to halt the use of facial recognition for a year. During that time, the bill proposes the State Education Department should study the technology thoroughly.

“Let’s not just take the vendors’ word that this is the best system in the world and that it’s going to keep our children safe. We have to look deeper into it,” said Wallace in a phone interview.

Schools should be investing in methods that have already been proven to promote safer environments, like promoting social and emotive learning, or hiring mental health counselors and security officers, she said.


But as state lawmakers weigh a vote on the bill, some schools in Wallace’s district have already implemented the technology.

Lockport City School District adopted facial recognition-equipped cameras early this year for safety reasons.

School district officials did not reply to several requests for comment.

Some school districts go further, using facial recognition to enforce disciplinary action.

When students are suspended at one of Texas City Independent School District’s, they are added to the system. If they are on school property during their suspension, the software alerts security officials.

Technology companies say it is beyond their control how schools use their products once a sale is completed.

“It’s really up to the schools to create the policy framework around how they’re going to use the technology,” said Mike Vance, senior director of product management at RealNetworks, one of the firms selling AI software to U.S. schools.

“The schools own all of the data and rules,” he added.


Data privacy is a bone of contention for critics of schools using the technology, who warn that schools may not be equipped to stave off sophisticated hackers from stealing sensitive information.

“If someone steals your social security number, you can get a new one. You can’t get a new face,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group.

While acknowledging potential risks, proponents say incorporating facial recognition for safety takes precedent while school officials wait for the U.S. government’s input.

“It may be years before they act,” said Matranga, referring to legislators. “By that time there could be several mass shootings that have taken place.”

There have been over 1,500 shootings at U.S. schools between 1970 and 2019, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database maintained by the Naval Postgraduate School, which is operated by the U.S. Navy.

School shootings in 2019 and 2018 were nearly four times as high as the average rate per year since researchers began collecting the information.

In one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, 26 people, including 20 children, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.


Jason Nance, a law professor at the University of Florida, has researched links between high-profile shootings and a trend of intensifying security at U.S. schools.

Increased surveillance can foster hostile environments that may lead to even more disorder, according to a report he published in 2016.

The report said strict security measures send a clear signal to students they are “dangerous, violent and prone to illegal activity”.

These practices also create a “school-to-prison pipeline” for students with a prior history of disobedience, Nance said in an interview.

“If that student misbehaves in some type of a slight manner because he or she is being watched very carefully, that student could be suspended again, expelled, or introduced to the justice system.”

U.S. college campuses are more reluctant than schools to introduce facial recognition technology, according to Fight for the Future.

The group got more than 50 prominent U.S. universities to commit to rule out facial recognition for surveillance on their campuses.

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) announced last month it had abandoned plans to install facial recognition surveillance systems on its campus, following a backlash by students.

Greer said the use of facial recognition technology should not be up to school officials alone.

“This should not be decided by some school official who maybe has their students’ best interest in mind, but might not have the expertise to know the potential harms of using technology like this,” said Greer.

“If left up to companies that make and sell this technology it would be everywhere,” Greer added.

(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes, Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)