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Police say social media turned call to high school into 'snowball'

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 01. 2013 10:10PM

CONCORD - Police said they were overwhelmed Tuesday night when social media amplified the fears and uncertainty that followed a fabricated report of a gunman at Concord High School.

With the regional SWAT Team in full operation and students being evacuated from the high school, inaccurate messages started showing up on social media, said Police Chief John Duval.

One said a bomb went off, Duval said. Another urged people to go to the school. A Concord High hashtag included a Tweet about gunfire and possible hostages.

But there were no hostages or gunfire. In fact, no gun at the school at all. By 10:30 p.m., police had arrested an 18 year old, within hours they freed him. At a press conference Wednesday, police said a teenage student lied when she told police the young man had threatened her with a handgun.

She could face charges of filing a false report, Duval said.

Lt. Timothy O'Malley said the social media added an element of fear to the school, which police evacuated after receiving the false report.

"That snowball started rolling dowhill, and it just started growing bigger and bigger as the night went on," Duval said.

He said the posts led to calls from the public and reporters, which he tried to answer with email and telephone.

"The more you say, 'No, this didn't happen,' then you get 'what did happen?' while at the same time we're trying to figure out what the reality was in the midst of the incident," Duval said. He said Concord police do have a Facebook page and Twitter feed, but he has more to learn about social media.

Throughout the incident, police put nothing on Facebook, and their only Twitter feed came at 10:37 p.m., announcing the arrest.

The incident started about 7:35 p.m. when police received the initial report of the girl being threatened. They activated the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit, which evacuated the building.

About 50 people were inside the building. Some were taking an adult music classes, some a college culinary class. Some high school students were filming a movie, which involved makeup and fake blood, school officials said.

The 18-year-old was found at his residence and arrested, police announced Tuesday night. But within hours, police started to doubt the girl's story. The suspect was released after being in custody for four hours, Duval said.

"He did not commit a crime last night," Duval said. Police did not release the man's name, but it was broadcast over social media, and the Concord Monitor ran the man's name after interviewing the girl.

Duval said the mobilization of the SWAT unit involved 20 to 30 officers, including police from Concord, Bow, Loudon, New Hampshire State Police and Merrimack County Sheriff deputies. Othe calls for service to Concord police backed up during the incident.

Duval said the incident cost the police department up to $10,000. If charged and convicted, the girl could be forced to pay restitution, Duval said.

An investigation is continuing, police said.

Union Leader reporter Tim Buckland contributed to this article.

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