When a man posted racist political opinions on a Facebook account he created using the official logo of a northern New Jersey high school, the district leapt into action.

Christine Corliss, who was the public information officer for the Essex County school district at the time, contacted the man and asked him to take it down.

He refused.

“He absolutely, adamantly refused to take it down on the grounds that it was his account, it was his personal right to call it whatever he wanted, and our logo wasn’t copyrighted, so he was able to use it,” Corliss said.

Then it got worse. The man began posting pornographic images while still using the school’s logo. With this latest abuse, Corliss said, she was sure Facebook would act, and in a small way it did. Facebook took down the pornographic images but left the man’s account open. Whenever an image was taken down, he would simply replace it with another that was just as offensive.

The name that the man was using on Facebook was the same as the high school in the district, and that was enough to convince Facebook to allow the account to remain active. While this flagrant abuse of a school district’s identity and reputation occurred about 10 years ago, a recent report, Schools and Social Media, based on a survey of 292 school districts in 43 states, shows that fakery and disinformation is much more common than you might think.

Among the key findings published in October by Education Week, school districts reported:

  • 59% have dealt with social media accounts that harass, intimidate or bully students.
  • 51% have dealt with mock accounts appearing with their logos/branding.
  • 45% have dealt with social media platforms not removing reported accounts/posts that harass, intimidate, or bully their students.

According to the survey results, the greatest level of difficulty reporting issues on social media is with Facebook (45% difficult or very difficult) and Instagram (42% difficult or very difficult).

A large percentage of respondents are unsure how to report social media issues, particularly on Snapchat (86%), TikTok (83%) and LinkedIn (76%), according to the report issued jointly by the Consortium for School Networking and the National School Public Relations Association.

Corliss, who is now the district webmaster and communications coordinator for the Tenafly Public Schools in Bergen County, estimates she spends about 20% of her time combating misinformation on Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms.

Ralph S. Passante Jr. has had a similar experience in Union City, Hudson County.

During the pandemic, Passante estimates he spent about 25% to 30% of his time stamping out the fires of disinformation, bullying and hate being spread through social media about everything from the trustworthiness of vaccines, to the effectiveness of wearing masks, to the origins of the coronavirus.

At one point, a person from outside the district decided to bully an 11-year-old Asian girl, said Passante, who is the coordinator of data and community engagement for the Union City Board of Education.

“He was making racist statements to her” and blamed Asians for spreading the coronavirus, Passante said. The person told her, “You’re responsible for making people sick.

“He said really vile things that would be terrible to say to anyone but especially to a child,” Passante said. The person making the statements, who turned out to be a 17-year-old young man, lived in another town and collected a good deal of information about the child he bullied. He knew what grade she was in. He had likely gotten close to her before he turned on her. When he told the girl she should kill herself, the police were called, Passante said.

“We intervened as best we could,”  he explained. 

Instagram closed the account. “I’m just relieved that it was not someone inside our district, because that would have been heartbreaking to think that one of our students would have been that bigoted and cruel,” Passante said.

During the pandemic, some students put up “fight club videos” on an Instagram page that used the official Union City school district logo. Students would fight each other and post the videos on Instagram.

“Some of them were brutal. Some involved students attacking a parent who tried to intervene,” Passante said. The school district contacted police, found the students and contacted the parents. 

Other incidents were relatively minor.

“Most of these accounts didn’t last for long because we found them pretty quickly,” Passante explained.

“We had one that was put up, it was some kind of picture of kids smoking in what appeared to be a school bathroom,” he said. “They weren’t too bright about how they did it. I mean, if you’re going to take a video and post it on Instagram, maybe you don’t want to show your face. But when you’re 12 or 13, you’re not thinking that way. You think only your friends are going to see it.”

According to the “Schools and Social Media” report, social media platforms, which are unregulated by the government, are either slow to react to complaints or act erratically.

Some districts have been trying to get their social media accounts “verified” to make it easier to weed out fake or malicious accounts. In many cases, it has not gone well.

The national “Schools and Social Media” report listed 81 comments from educators around the country who described how widespread bullying had damaged their schools and hurt students and teachers. 

“Kids often create accounts that are harmful to other students and/or the school image. These accounts create disruption and fear in the classroom environment and cost hours of time from teachers and administrators to research, calm and connect with parents,”  one educator told the national survey. “Kids know these accounts will not get removed, so they are always creating new ones.”

Other educators said social media companies make it difficult to remove fake or malicious accounts – a situation that is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Recently announced widespread layoffs at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram make it hard to see how social media companies will assign more people to handle complaints.

Educators said unregulated social media companies have little financial incentive to address the issue, and they grow frustrated when their requests to shut down slanderous accounts are ignored. 

“We have no human point-of-contact on any of the social media platforms with whom we can communicate about accounts and posts that contain images of minors or employees that are used in a manner to promote misinformation, harassment, or libel,” said one educator who was quoted anonymously in the national survey. “Account disputes seem to be resolved either by bots or by individuals who do not know who we are and do not seem to care.”

About 25% of the districts that participated in the “Schools and Social Media” report said they had applied to be verified on social media and had been rejected. Rejection for verification was highest on Twitter (13%) but closely followed by Facebook (12%) and Instagram (12%), according to the report.

And yet, despite the difficulties, most districts continue to interact with social media.

Fully 99% of the school districts in the survey had Facebook accounts. Ninety-three percent were on Twitter. Eighty-six percent were on Instagram and 86% were on YouTube.

Lori Perlow, the public information officer for Haddon Township Public Schools in Camden County, said school districts need to keep fighting social media disinformation, and they need to use social media to communicate with parents and promote their schools. 

While she advocates staying with social media, she is concerned about the lies being spread.

“If it isn’t addressed, then we’re basically giving permission for this to continue,” said Perlow, vice president for the northeast region of the National School Public Relations Association and the former president of the New Jersey School Public Relations Association.

If students or adults are creating fake accounts, “if it’s abusive, if it’s containing harassing or inappropriate photos, or hateful language,” she said, “we have to get some control over it.”

The national organization has created a toolkit to help districts advocate for faster verification of their accounts and quicker removal of imposters, Perlow said. The toolkit can be accessed at www.nspra.org/Schools-and-Social-Media/Campaign-Toolkit.

“It’s very easy to say, forget it, we’re not doing social media anymore, it’s too much,” Perlow said. “But we have to go where our audiences are.”

Districts need to establish relationships with the community and keep trying even if something goes wrong. She said that school districts that join the New Jersey School Public Relations Association can meet regularly to exchange ideas about how to address the problem and share resources.

If a district decides to withdraw from social media, Perlow said, “You can do that and have no publicity at all.”

But she said she believes that would be a mistake.

“We don’t want to shy away from things because they’re difficult,” she said. “We want to go slowly, tread lightly, but at least stay in the game.”

Alan Guenther is the former assistant editor for the New Jersey School Boards Association.