The symptoms were full-blown Wednesday, March 13, when the Tracy Police Department mobile command center set up shop at Kimball High School and school officials evacuated Tracy High School.
The disease went critical Thursday, March 14, when Kimball High was evacuated.
Each case was the result of rascals run rampant.
At Kimball High, a scrawl on a bathroom wall Friday, March 8, set in motion a mill that by Monday, March 11, had churned out a rumor that a shooting was planned at the campus off Lammers Road.
The school sent out notices to parents, and police responded with a calm show of force on Wednesday. And just as school district administrators predicted, the school day went on as usual. At least, as usual as it can be when a giant police trailer is in the parking lot.
The day did not go as usual at Tracy High, where it seems the Kimball rumors spilled over and set off another scare.
This time, writing found in campus bathrooms was interpreted as a bomb threat, and about an hour before Wednesday’s final bell, the East 11th Street high school was emptied.
As Lincoln Park was packed with evacuated teenagers, police searched the school and found, once again, that the threat was not credible.
The virulent strain returned to Kimball on Thursday, when an apparent bomb threat emptied the school around 2 p.m.
School officials say the Kimball bomb threat was an “isolated incident,” but I’ll bet money it was somehow an evolution of what happened at Tracy High and Kimball earlier in the week.
As of press time Thursday, no one had been injured, and it appeared no one was ever in serious danger.
Except, that is, for the two teens arrested for allegedly instigating the Tracy High hoax.
Tracy Unified School District spokeswoman Jessica Cardoza told me that these types of threats are taken to heart because, even if they don’t seem believable, student safety is a non-negotiable priority.
Just because no one turned out to be in harm’s way doesn’t mean that police resources were wasted or that administrators were wrong to react with an abundance of caution.
In the wake of incidents such as the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., administrators and law enforcement simply can’t assume that the sound and fury of rumors signify nothing.
On the contrary, police and administrators treated the situations as they should — seriously.
If there’s any blame to be parceled out, it belongs elsewhere.
It would be easy to say school days and class time were needlessly disrupted because someone decided it would be fun to write something on the walls, or turn those words into something more salacious, or confuse a bomb threat for a prank.
It would be easy because it’s true.
But it’s also not that simple.
Gossip isn’t something that just happens among teenagers. Adults are equally adept at spreading misinformation, maliciously or not.
It’s also unfair to lay the blame solely at the feet of social media.
While platforms like Twitter — the medium through which the Kimball High shooting rumor apparently spread — make it easy to reach more people faster than in-person conversations, they don’t cause gossip. Those who remember high school should recall how fast half-truths spread through hallways and locker rooms without the aid of smartphones.
The point is, eliminating Twitter (or teenagers) won’t stop false alarms.
And while punishing those responsible is necessary, in the end it’s only an after-the-fact reaction.
The only real preventative measures are education and empathy — getting people of all ages to understand how serious such threats are and how inappropriate it is to start or encourage falsehoods that, if they were true, would have truly tragic results.
Perhaps relying on the better angels of our nature to prevail against such pestilence is a fool’s hope. But it might be the best one that we have.
• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Editor's note: This column was updated to reflect information provided after the column went to print Thursday, March 14.