The Washougal Police Department (WPD) is investigating the origins of a fake Washougal High School Instagram page that contained inappropriate material encouraging unsafe behavior and specific acts of vandalism before being deleted.
“We will continue to work closely with local law enforcement to ensure student, family and staff safety,” Washougal High principal Sheree Gomez-Clark wrote in a letter to families dated Tuesday, Nov. 30. “Any reports of threats or rumors are treated very seriously and are thoroughly investigated by school and district administrators, our school resource officer and other law enforcement officers. We are proud of our students and staff who work hard every day to keep our schools safe. At this time, the Washougal Police Department does not believe there is any credible threat to student safety.”
Washougal School District communications and technology director Les Brown said the district became aware of the account on Thursday, Nov. 25. The faked page contained Washougal High’s logo and claimed to be the school’s official account, run by school administrators.
“We’re thankful that we have some pretty active and engaged patrons and students who found something that looked a little bit off,” Brown said. “They reported it several different ways to the school district as well as the high school, so we started filing reports (that day) to start the (removal) process with Instagram and filed more of them earlier (the following) week, which, in consultation with the work that law enforcement did, led to either Instagram pulling the account or the person who created it deleting it (on Nov. 30).”
Brown said district leaders know who created the account, but won’t publicly identify them at this time.
“I can’t comment on the specifics, but I can say that in general, whenever we have a safety concern, we work really closely with the student and their family to make sure they’re supported throughout the process, and depending on the severity of the situation could involve outside staff, local law enforcement, mental health providers, those kinds of things,” Brown said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure that when we receive something that might be a threat, we figure out whether it’s credible or not. We’re always working to support the student in whatever way we can to continue their education. If that means excluding them from the school facility and providing instruction in other ways, (we will do that). That’s all a general process.”
The account’s first few posts contained content Brown thought was “intended to be a joke — things that were pretty mean-spirited toward … different staff people.”
“It was posting things sort of related to the Tik-Tok ‘vandalism challenge’ — it reposted some content that was originally found on Instagram encouraging people to commit vandalism (at the school),” he said. “The final thing was a post about, sort of tongue-in-cheek, declaring a ‘purge day,’ with the idea of ‘the rules don’t apply, so do whatever you want.'”
“It escalated really quickly from something that we still wanted to not be there to things that involved more and more people the worse the content got,” he continued. “Once it started posting things that were threatening in nature and I think some of the high school staff would characterize as slanderous, we involved local law enforcement in helping to investigate. They were able to work with Instagram to identify a person as the owner of the account.”
Washougal Police Chief Wendi Steinbronn declined to comment as the case is still under investigation.
“Washougal is such a great place to live and work. It’s a very safe community. We know things like this can rattle people and make them feel less safe, always an unfortunate outcome,” Brown said. “We have a great partnership with the Washougal Police Department through our school resource officer program, and that gave us access to another set of tools to resolve this really quickly. Law enforcement obviously has some different channels they use to gain access to information through warrants or subpoenas or those types of things, and the type of content is probably what sped that process up for law enforcement.”
As part of their own internal investigation, district officials interviewed students who engaged with the bogus account through a “like,” follow or comment.
“We’ve been using this as a teaching experience for all of the students who interacted with the content,” Brown said. “(We’re) trying to remind them to be really credible when they’re choosing to repost stuff, and if they have a concern about something, interacting with it online is not a great way to get support. In the message that principal Gomez-Clark sent out, she reminded students that if they find something that’s making them uncomfortable or unsafe, it’s really important that they bring it to a trusted adult or member of the school staff so that we can investigate it. In this case, the escalating nature of the account led us to have a multi-pronged approach to get it taken down as quickly as possible, and that did involve some interviews with students by school administration and local law enforcement.”
Gomez-Clark wrote that students “should not share, comment or ‘like’ these types of posts on social media, but instead report them to a trusted adult.”
“This is a good time to remind students that it’s never OK to make jokes or comments about school safety,” she wrote. “Washougal is a great place to live and learn, and our No. 1 priority is to provide a safe and secure learning environment for our students and staff, and we will always act in the interest of caution.”
Earlier this year, community members expressed objections after seeing a profane comment on what was purported to be the Washougal School District’s official Instagram page. The district didn’t have an Instagram account at the time but created one after the incident, which was resolved after Instagram removed the fake page from its site.
“As someone who is relatively new to Instagram, I will say it’s really difficult to tell what is legitimate and what’s not,” Brown said. “I find it to be much more difficult, because of the way the platform works, to say, ‘This is a credible account,’ or ‘This isn’t a credible account.’ And when an account starts to gain followers, it sort of looks more legitimate. That’s another piece of this ongoing work that people need to be doing around being wise consumers of digital information. Just because an account has (a lot of) followers or just because somebody you know follows it doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate account.”
“Maybe an opportunity for public education would be to remind people that if they’re looking for, for example, the official high school account, going to the high school webpage and clicking on the Instagram logo (is better) than just searching for it,” Brown said.