The social networking app, Yik Yak, on a smartphone on...

The social networking app, Yik Yak, on a smartphone on Oct. 8, 2014. Credit: Newsday

School officials on Long Island are warning parents of a Twitter-like app called Yik Yak that allows anonymous postings within a small geographic area and has been linked in recent weeks to a bomb threat in one public high school and a report of a gun at Suffolk County Community College.

The free mobile app allows users to write anonymous posts of up to 200 characters that can be read within a 1.5-mile radius of their location. Suffolk police say threats against schools in several other states have been traced to Yik Yak users.

"The anonymity of these posts allows individuals who may have malicious intent to write comments about others that may be hurtful, harassing and sometimes quite disturbing," Miller Place Superintendent Marianne F. Higuera wrote in a letter to parents last month. Officials in several nearby Suffolk County school districts -- Mount Sinai, Port Jefferson, Rocky Point and Shoreham-Wading River -- joined in sounding the alert, she wrote.

Administrators and educators in the Lindenhurst, Longwood and Port Washington districts also have cautioned parents via email or letters posted on district websites.

Yik Yak, launched last fall, was created by two Furman University graduates with the intention of appealing to college students. A company spokesman said that it is also intended to be restricted to users older than 17. Its website gives guidelines on how parents can block children from downloading it.

'Gossipy, lewd' environment

The app has become a "gossipy and lewd online environment where anything goes and the user can say anything about anybody," said Rebecca Randall, vice president for education programs at the nonprofit Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based watchdog group that promotes safe media.

Yik Yak's CEO and co-founder Tyler Droll, through a spokesman, said the app has what are called "geofences" that restrict access in all primary and secondary schools, specifically to address the product's misuse by those who are underage.

Educators said the restriction works at schools' locations, but does not address the issue of misuse outside of a school's defined boundaries.

Last week, police responded to Suffolk County Community College's Selden campus after a student saw a message posted on Yik Yak that indicated someone was inside the library with a gun. No weapon was found. On Sept. 15, Suffolk County police arrested a Mount Sinai teenager for posting a threat of violence on Yik Yak directed toward his high school.

Police said they notified school administrators months ago about the potential misuse of Yik Yak after the app came to the Suffolk department's attention "due to its use as a platform to communicate school threats in other communities." The department noted threats that had occurred in Chicago; San Clemente, California; Marblehead, Massachusetts; and Montrose, Colorado, during the latter half of the 2013-14 school year. Nassau police are aware of the app.

The spokesman for Yik Yak said the app's developers work with local law enforcement to identify the location of a user and help with investigations. Yik Yak has built-in algorithms that recognize misuse or threatening behavior, and will block or suspend accounts based on the type of content being posted.

"The app monitors conversations and posts, and any negative or harmful behavior will result in the respective user being blocked, or altogether banned from future use," the spokesman said. "We continue to build out this technology to ensure positive interaction, but we are also finding that as more users sign up and start using the app, each community begins to self-regulate itself in a positive way."

The Yik Yak spokesman would not reveal how many users the app has.

On its website, Yik Yak says users do not register or create account names, and Yik Yak does not ask them to provide their real names, phone numbers, email addresses or other identifying information. Yik Yak says it keeps a log of the IP address from which each message is posted, the GPS coordinates of the location from which the message was posted, and the time and date when the message was posted.

In answer to the question, "Can I post a threat with no repercussions?" the site's FAQ says, "No. Don't be dumb. DON'T POST A THREAT. We take threats to safety very seriously and cooperate with local authorities if there's a post that poses a threat to people."

Miller Place High School senior Robert Revera, 17, said he has heard of the app. He said he would not post something that he would not want his name attached to.

"Most high school students don't regularly use them, and their popularity seems to be decreasing," Revera said, speaking generally of apps that allow anonymity. "It is also known that nothing is truly anonymous."

An alert to parents

Ira Pernick, principal of Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, said he learned of Yik Yak from parents and sent an email in September to alert the school community.

"My view on most of the things regarding social media, if it comes to us, and parents and students express concern, [is] we can't close our eyes to it; the best we can do is provide information," Pernick said.

Schreiber senior Brandon Wilkoff, 17, said he knows that the app has been hurtful to other students.

"It's anonymous and you can't trace it," he said. "I've never been a target but . . . mostly girls get targeted and made fun of."

Drew Biondo, a spokesman for Suffolk County Community College, said officials there are looking to opt out of the application on the school's campuses.

"The developers' intent for Yik Yak may have been well intended. However, in real-world use, it is being used for destructive purposes," he said.

The anonymous aspect of Yik Yak worries educators. Yik Yak works via GPS to identify where the user is each time he or she opens the app and posts messages -- called "yaks" -- to other nearby users, according to Common Sense Media.

"Due to the anonymity granted by this app, we will be unable to identify perpetrators of bullying conducted via this new technology," read the letter from Miller Place's superintendent.

Public school students can legally be disciplined for incidents that occur off-campus, according to attorney Greg Guercio of the Farmingdale firm Guercio and Guercio, which represents many districts.

New York State's Dignity for All Students Act has "required districts to have policies to deal with bullying. That includes cyberbullying as well, and we see more and more bullying happening within that context, and that is K-12," he said. "Most school districts do not have the technological capacity to track it down when it is anonymous -- that is a relatively new phenomenon that schools are just beginning to cope with."

Randall, of Common Sense Media, emphasized the importance of teaching young people "to think critically about behaviors online, and to participate responsibly." Schools and parents play a pivotal role, she said.

About 80,000 schools nationwide have been working with the watchdog group. On Long Island, as part of its digital safety initiative, the Elwood schools adopted materials from Common Sense Media for five workshops throughout the school year for students in grades 3-5 at James H. Boyd Intermediate School.

Krista Albrecht, the district's instructional technology specialist, will lead the program, which is aligned with the Dignity for All Students Act and bullying prevention curricula. It aims to equip students with the knowledge to protect themselves and respect others in the digital world.

As younger children gain access to smartphones and other technology, Albrecht said, the education is "a necessity."

Eye opener for teachers

"Even as teachers, it was eye-opening for us to see how students as young as 9 and 10 were already involved in social media," she said. The district would like to expand the program to middle and high school students districtwide, she said.

Emily Porter, a district PTA liaison in the Elwood district, has a daughter in the fifth grade who is one of the first students in a pilot program focused on becoming a good digital citizen.

"I'm grateful my daughter is receiving this information before she is deeply involved in social media," said Porter, of East Northport.

She said she told her son, a 10th-grader at John Glenn High School, "that when you download, or you post something, you are not only posting your name to it -- you are posting your reputation. I have a big belief you should not post anything you would not say from your own mouth to a person's face."

Pernick, at Schreiber High School, said educators are constantly challenged to keep up with ever-evolving technology.

"There is no such thing as staying ahead," he said. "We are trying to reduce the gap we are behind the kids."

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