TPSS building

The Tangipahoa School System Building in Amite City, La.

School and law enforcement officials in Tangipahoa Parish are disappointed that parents inflamed an already-tense situation by taking to social media as local deputies tried to investigate reports of an armed man on school grounds.

The "threat" turned out to be a man with an umbrella.

Hammond Eastside Magnet Elementary School and Hammond High School, whose campuses lie a quarter-mile from each other, both went on lockdown Thursday after law enforcement received a call about a man carrying a gun in the elementary school parking lot. Deputies, police and fire crews responded to the scene around 3:30 p.m. and the schools postponed dismissal.

In a Facebook group for local school parents, meanwhile, people whose children were at the two schools clamored for answers. Some said their students had heard gunshots. Others asked whether law enforcement had found the “active shooter.” Some referred to a "shootout" taking place.

Later that evening, after law enforcement cleared the area and a wave of buses began transporting students home, the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s office released a statement saying that there had been no threat all along.

Surveillance video footage showed the man “was not in possession of a firearm,” the sheriff’s office said. Instead, he appeared to be “holding an umbrella" or perhaps a cane-like object.

Sheriff’s deputies located and interviewed the man, who was not arrested, said Tangipahoa sheriff chief Jimmy Travis.

Still, confusion reigned on social media even after the sheriff’s office released the statement on its Facebook page.

“So what’s the truth here? Are parents just blowing this out of proportion,” one member of the parents’ group wrote, “or is the school trying to hide this from the parents?”

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In an era when shootings on school campuses in the United States have become terrifyingly common — and when students are drilled regularly on how to protect themselves if a shooter descends on their campus — Thursday’s false alarm proved “the best outcome to a call like this,” Travis said.

But though an unarmed person being mistaken for a potential threat was the best possible result of the situation, Travis said, speculation on social media made law enforcement’s work to investigate the threat more difficult.

“It makes it hard for us to get the facts out there,” he said.

Misinformation and rumors spread through the platform's algorithms have become common problems for law enforcement in rural Louisiana with Facebook serving as a gathering place, gossip hub and news source for people there.

In Tangipahoa Parish, a mostly working-class and largely rural area east of Baton Rouge, the platform has also posed problems for school leaders.

Rumors about mold growing in classrooms after Hurricane Ida spread quickly on Facebook, prompting school board members to ask parents to think more critically about where their information is coming from.

“You got people who believe everything that’s posted. That’s what happened yesterday,” said Randy Bush, a member of the parish school board, on Friday. “Before it got stopped, you had people saying there was a shootout at the school.”

Tangipahoa Schools Superintendent Melissa Stilley and administrators at Hammond Eastside Magnet and Hammond High School did not immediately return phone messages Friday morning.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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