Social Media “Prank” Sets Off Investigation

The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.
The entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.

By Kathryn G. Menu

A social media post made late last Wednesday night resulted in a police investigation and disciplinary action against two students of Pierson High School, according to Superintendent Katy Graves, who sent a letter to parents Thursday afternoon.

The post depicted a student holding what police later determined to be a toy gun. A second student wrote a threatening message on a banner across the student in the photograph in what Ms. Graves described as a “prank gone terribly wrong.” Both students are minors, and Southampton Town Police have not charged either student with a crime following a complete investigation, Ms. Graves said in an interview on Wednesday.

Southampton Town Police did not return repeated calls for comment.

Ms. Graves said she was contacted by a parent at 11:46 p.m. on Wednesday, at which point she immediately contacted Sag Harbor Village Police, who referred the case to Southampton Town Police.

“The investigating detective stayed in touch with me throughout the night,” she said. “They finished their investigation around 4:30 a.m., and at that point they told me the situation had been fully investigated and student safety was assured.”

Ms. Graves said she was in touch with administrators at both Pierson middle and high schools, who contacted the families involved with the situation and conducted their own investigation beginning early Thursday morning.

“The administration was in touch with all stakeholders involved in this in any way, and were very swift in levying disciplinary action,” she said. Ms. Graves said the specific disciplinary action taken against individuals could not be shared publicly, citing laws protecting student privacy.

“That does not mean there have not been consequences, or that they have not matched the level of seriousness that had occurred,” she added.

“We consider student safety paramount to everything,” Ms. Graves continued. “The times have changed, and we recognize that, which is why we have been building district safety plans and an understanding that it is not tolerated for anyone to feel unsafe in school. That said, we cannot let parents know the exact disciplinary steps we have taken in a case because of confidentiality, and I appreciate that is hard, but there are federal and state laws that protect privacy and that is outside of our control.”

The district has upgraded security at both Sag Harbor Elementary School and Pierson Middle-High School, creating new procedures for entering and exiting the schools, and has increased video surveillance on both properties.

“Over the last three years we have heightened our safety protocols in an effort to increase student and staff safety,” said Ms. Graves.

Ms. Graves said if there is any insinuation of threat made against any student, staff member, or the school, police are immediately called to investigate. When police conclude an investigation, she added, the district performs its own. With students often engaged in social media day and night, Ms. Graves said it was critical parents be aware of what sites their children are navigating, and to bring any potentially harmful posts forward immediately.

“As an administrative team, we have begun to talk about ramping up education about social media, the impact of these images and how they do not go away once they are posted but can be captured forever,” she said. “We are talking not just about the parent workshops, but how we can build this education into our curriculum. Ten years ago, Snapchat and Instagram did not exist, and while some children may see a moment on social media as a prank that is going to go away, if they frighten one person, that is the threshold we have for an investigation.”