Snapchatting a school shooting: Great Mills High students share their experiences on social media

It’s an image that could only happen in our time.

The room is dark, viewed from behind a school chair. An American flag hangs in the window. A pink graphic with white cursive writing says “Tuesday.” Then the caption: “We on lockdown someone tell me what happened at gmhs.”

The photo, posted to Snapchat and Twitter, was one of the many shared on social media Tuesday during a deadly shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County that left the gunman dead and two others wounded.

It’s a scene that many students believe they’ll eventually find themselves in, said Susan Moeller, a professor who teaches media literacy at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland

“I do think that students are increasingly expecting that events like this are going to happen,” said Moeller. Their attitude is, she says: “Sooner or later this is going to be something that’s part of my experience.”

Neither social media nor school shootings have a very long history in American life — it was only 1999 when the Columbine massacre occurred. Snapchat was launched in 2011. Yet even in the span of a couple of decades, the ubiquitousness of social media and smart phones video has meant that students in shootings now are using mobile social media in the moment to document their experiences, communicate that they’re OK, to record their reactions.

But, as school shootings become more common, so do social media images depicting them.

Isiah Tichenor, a Great Mills senior, tweeted a photo of his handwritten account of Tuesday’s shooting. “I was in my classroom, when I heard in the hallway ‘run! He has a gun!’ ”

Another senior, Terrence Rhames, also tweeted about his experience, describing the moment he heard the first shot.

But Rhames, 18, said some people were also sharing false information on social media.

“The story was getting mixed up a lot,” he said.

On Tuesday night, Rhames used Twitter to share a song he wrote about the shooting. He started working on the song as soon as he got home, he said.

Rhames said music is his way of expressing himself and he saw many people, including Great Mills parents, sharing the song on social media.

He titled it “Unexpected.”

“It’s just a real different feeling when it actually happens to you,” he said. “I never would think anything like that would happen to my school until it actually did.”

Social media can also be used to disseminate threats. Last month, the principal of Great Mills High School reportedly sent a letter to parents alerting them that a Snapchat photo threatening the school had circulated, according to the website thebaynet.com.

Overall, says Moeller, it’s reassuring for students to be able to share their immediate experiences with the outside world. “I think, generally, students are feeling safer as a result of social media,” she said.

During a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas documented their experiences while on lockdown.

“Our [expletive] school is getting shot up” is the caption to a video that shows a female Parkland student in a floral dress, sitting cross-legged on the floor to a soundtrack of screams and gunfire. In other shots, sneakered feet scramble on the tiled school floors, in search of safety.

Such videos have served as a powerful testimony in the aftermath of shootings. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas student survivors have emerged as vocal activists against gun violence, organizing national protests and refusing to allow the shooting to fade from the news cycle.

Some of the Parkland students used their own social media platforms to amplify the voices and experiences of the students at Great Mills. They said it was just another example of the need for change.

Later, typically, students are using these media to galvanize political response. On Tuesday afternoon, the hashtag #WeAreGreatMills began trending on Twitter, as alumni and others with links to Great Mills demanded for gun control.

The hashtag that had been used to promote the men’s basketball team and the school library was now a call to arms.

Baltimore Sun reporters Talia Richman and Alison Knezevich contributed to this story.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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