OAKLEY -- Like many powerful tools, social media can be used for good -- or can wreak havoc.
The unrest that struck Freedom High School over the course of four days late last month, after rumors of impending violence on the Oakley campus went viral, illustrates just how much trouble social networks like Twitter and Facebook can cause when they run amok.
Principal Erik Faulkner recently met with a group of Freedom parents to explain what led up to the worrisome but ultimately baseless threat and the turmoil -- heightened anxiety, missed meetings, time spent planning the school's response -- it created behind the scenes.
The trouble began Oct. 30, when some administrators became aware of talk that another fight was brewing between two Freedom High gangs.
There are just seven bona fide gang members and 10 kids who hang around them on the 2,351-student campus, Faulkner said.
Despite the school's efforts to keep the Norteños and Sureños apart by imposing lunch detention on anyone caught provoking a rival, the groups recently had crossed paths when they both showed up in the quad to watch a fight between two girls.
A handful of them jumped into the fray; expulsions, suspensions and transfers followed.
Administrators then began hearing reports from a few teachers and parents that another conflict might be developing, this one possibly involving weapons. School officials began searching the student database for
They also turned to the Internet, taking screen shots of students' Facebook pages and scouring Twitter conversations for the key word #Freedomshooting in search of other clues to the source and credibility of the rumor.
"Nothing turned out to be firsthand information," Faulkner said. "Every lead led nowhere."
And so it went until two days later, when the hearsay shifted into overdrive.
"It blew up; it went viral," Faulkner said, recalling that numerous teachers now were getting text messages, emails and calls from students alerting them to the talk of violence. "It's running rampant throughout the community -- people are tweeting and retweeting."
Faulkner notified the district superintendent and his three assistant superintendents about the growing anxiety.
That night they came up with a game plan: The district's top-ranking administrators, along with five other district employees, would station themselves around Freedom High just before lunch to provide students with a reassuring presence.
Faulkner contacted the police officer assigned to Freedom High to let him know of the arrangement. Oakley police Chief Bani Kollo said he would provide additional personnel on campus.
The full repercussions of this electronic grapevine-gone-haywire played out on Day Four, when another event occurred that had authorities thinking their worst fears were coming to pass: Two students thought they saw a kid with a gun on campus. An exhaustive search ensued, and absenteeism hit the 60 percent mark that day.
And by calling the sheriff's marine patrol for backup, Kollo spared the city from having to pay his officers what could have amounted to thousands in overtime pay.
But he pointed out that the rumors took a less obvious toll.
"The true cost was to taxpayers who did not have those resources (the usual number of police) available to them," he wrote in an email. "It worked out as we had a relatively light day, but it could have been ugly."
Faulkner said he had to cancel the six meetings he'd scheduled that final day, and Superintendent Eric Volta missed the last day of an out-of-town conference he was attending.
Faced with a similar situation in the future, school administrators plan to do things a little differently.
The high school and police department will ensure that the information they're disseminating to the public is the same, Faulkner said, and the district will designate an employee to serve as the sole point of contact for callers trying to find out what's happening.
He also plans to close the gates around the campus so that employees who are busy handling a potentially serious threat don't also have to deal with unauthorized visitors; at least one worried parent walked straight into a classroom to yank her child out during this latest upset, he said.
Despite the pivotal role that social media played in the week's events, neither Faulkner nor Volta would consider banning cellphones on campus.
And although Faulkner thinks parents should monitor their children's use of Facebook and Twitter, he's well aware that he holds no sway over them, or any social media.
"I don't have the power to shut down Facebook and Twitter," Faulkner said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.
For a more detailed timeline of events, read this story online at www.contracostatimes.com