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Police and school officials try to quell rumors of 'multiple' missing Black men, students

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Social media posts claimed up to eight people of color, possibly from the queer community, were missing; then, an email from a school principal accelerated those rumors. Now, the Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Schools district are trying to course correct.

Over the last week, a series of social media posts have suggested that a number — in some cases four, in others, eight — Black or other minority individuals had gone missing. Many posts suggested they were from the queer community, as well as suggesting they had all gone missing from the same area. Other posts suggested the missing people were all young, possibly all students.

Some of the concerns seemed to have originated with the disappearance of Miyonna Jones, first reported missing on November 2 and now believed to be the victim of foul play. Some posts initially claimed the Wilmington Police Department was slow to act on her disappearance, although WPD posted information about her on its social media feeds not long after she was reported missing.

In the following days, several other young people of color were also reported missing. While WPD stated the cases were not related, that did not stem the tide of online speculation — pointing to drug-related human trafficking or even white supremacist organizations. Some of the posts were also tinged with frustration local media had not reported on the story.

And, while several of those missing people were subsequently located, rumors persisted.

Then, on the evening of November 8, New Hanover High School Principal Philip Sutton sent out an email to parents. It read, in part, "[o]ur thoughts and prayers continue to be with multiple New Hanover High School students that are considered missing."

Philip Sutton post

While, at the time, two students were missing — Jones, and another student who has since been located — many clearly interpreted the "multiple" to refer to the growing rumor, and variations on it, that eight people of color were missing.

The following morning, the Wilmington Police Department tried to address these rumors, particularly one strand that had claimed eight Black men from Wilmington had gone missing in the last several days.

"The Wilmington Police Department is aware of a Facebook post referencing eight missing African-American males. This is false information that has been passed around on social media. There is currently one case of a missing male, 28-year-old Cody Yarbrough. He went missing on 10/31/22 but was not reported missing until 11/6/22," WPD posted.

WPD's post didn't specifically address the version of the rumor that claimed students were going missing but, apparently, WPD did contact NHCS about the potentially misleading nature of Sutton's post — which had, by Wednesday morning, had an inflammatory effect on those rumors.

Wednesday afternoon, NHCS Chief Communication Officer Josh Smith took to social media to apologize for Sutton's email.

"This is Josh Smith, the chief comms officer for the district. I want to address some misinformation circulating on social media about missing persons/students, specifically at New Hanover High School. One NHHS student, Miyonna Jones, is considered missing by law enforcement. An earlier message from the school that referenced 'multiple students' was inaccurate. We apologize for any confusion this has caused in the community," Smith wrote.

At the same time, StarNews published an article claiming two students were missing — not one. At the time of publication, both NHCS and WPD had confirmed directly with WHQR that the second missing student, 16-year-old NHHS junior Areceli Rojas-Jimenez, had been located.

As of Thursday morning, StarNews had not updated its article — and it was still being cited on social media as evidence that NHCS, WPD, or both were the ones putting out incorrect evidence — or, worse, covering up the disappearance of students. WHQR NHCS and WPD officials who spoke to WHQR have refuted those claims.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.