School district, police cracking down on 'terroristic threats'

Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2001

A warning to young people on the Kenai Peninsula: This is not a good time to mouth off about violence in school.

Since the March 5 school shooting in Santee, Calif., there has been a spate of copycat threats in peninsula schools. Official reaction has been swift and harsh.

One central peninsula youth has been arrested since the California murders.

A 15-year-old from Kenai Central High School was arrested March 9 for making threats of "harm of a Columbine nature" according to Gus Sandahl, an investigator with the Kenai Police Department. The student was taken into custody in the evening off school grounds and sent to the youth detention center in Anchorage.

Troopers have not made any arrests, but they are taking reports from schools on incidents that would not have been reported in the past, said First Sgt. Nils Monsen, supervisor of the Alaska State Troopers post in Soldotna.

The troopers did become involved in one case in Anchor Point involving threatening talk, but it was resolved informally after talking to the student and the student's parents, he said.

Most such situations are less serious than their official classification as "terroristic threats" might imply to the public, but law enforcement now scrutinizes anything along those lines carefully, he said.

"We don't want any copy-catters," Monsen said. "We want to know what's going on."

The Soldotna Police Department has had calls from schools saying that some threat incidents were being handled in-house, but none required police intervention at this time, reported Det. Sgt. Tod McGillivray on Wednesday.

Meanwhile the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is taking an active role in ensuring student safety.

"We want to do everything humanly possible to be sure nothing happens in our schools," said Superintendent Donna Peterson. "We take all threats seriously, and we are going to err on the side of safety."

She confirmed that schools have reported inappropriate comments recently, but no weapons have been found on any school grounds.

The district takes steps on all levels to prevent safety problems and, if they occur, to respond effectively, she stressed.

Attitudes toward school safety have changed in recent years. The district is far more likely to call in police and to suspend or expel students than it was even a few years ago. Staff are trained to head off problems, handle emergencies and coordinate with law enforcement.

The district has a partnership with police and troopers throughout the peninsula and has developed critical incident plans in cooperation with them.

"They have been incredibly supportive," Peterson said.

She and other educators are seeking similar cooperation from the rest of the community, particularly parents. Anyone who has concerns or information about dangers should contact their school principal, who is trained to respond and will deal with students, parents, police and the district administration. Anonymous tips are acceptable.

Everyone should listen to what young people are saying and consider their words and actions seriously.

"They shouldn't sit on it and just think that's how kids talk. Not in 2001. They would feel awfully if something happened," Peterson said.

All incidents are investigated by principals and personnel from the district's central office. The district gets involved on the highest level because the administrators want to be informed, to ensure that punishments are consistently fair and to bring new, objective viewpoints to individual situations, she said.

"We take action depending on what the investigation reveals," she said.

Actions may include suspension until a student can prove they are safe to return to school. Suspension is no holiday. It involves schoolwork, counseling and other obligations. In extreme cases, students may end up in jail.

"We remove the child from the setting, and we involve law enforcement," she said.

Peterson said the district does more than respond to threats. It curtails problems before they start.

Starting at the earliest grades, the schools foster respect, constructive approaches and a sense of belonging, she said.

"School should be a safe haven, even if home is not," she said.

"When we talk about school climate, we want to make sure we don't have disenfranchised students."

Health and safety topics are part of the curriculum at various levels, and the district has mental health professionals and others in the schools to offer students the help and comfort they may need.

The peninsula's high schools are small by national standards. Studies have shown than when schools have more than about 750 students, teens have more social problems in them, she noted.

"We have made the choice on the Kenai Peninsula -- the smart, expensive choice -- to keep our schools small," she said.

Peterson has heard rumors that some families believe schools, even here, are not safe. But schools are at least as safe as grocery stores or other public places, she said.

"There is a perception kids are out of control. I disagree," she said.

The problem of a few young people testing the system or seeking attention in inappropriate ways is not new. But the increased weaponry, violence and publicity require vigilance from everyone.

"The next thing that happens somewhere in the country, we will do it again," she said.

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