Threats, but no violence, reported in area schools

Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2001

More than 200 students were absent Friday from Soldotna High School following rumors that something violent might happen on the second anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo.

Officials reported no violence in Kenai Peninsula schools. However, there was a threat at Soldotna Middle School.

"We had one kid comment something to the effect that he was going to celebrate the anniversary and shoot something up, and made hand motions like a gun," said Soldotna Police Chief Shirley Warner. "He was suspended for his comment, and we'll send it to juvenile intake to look at for charges... That's a felony charge. That's a terroristic threat."

Sylvia Reynolds, Soldotna High School's principal, said some students were away for sports events, so it was difficult to tell how many actually avoided the school for fear of violence.

But nearly half of SoHi's roughly 530 students were missing, she said, far more than could be accounted for by out-of-town track, soccer, swimming and student government events. So apparently, a substantial number were absent because of the rumors -- or possibly because of the sunny spring weather.

"Some parents withheld kids because of the rumors, and some kids chose to use those rumors to their benefit for a three-day weekend," Reynolds said.

There were two recent threats of violence in the school: one by a very frustrated student about two weeks ago and one, apparently in jest, on Thursday, she said. Both students received 45-day suspensions, she said.

After the first threat, Reynolds said, she asked language arts teachers, who have classes with all SoHi students, to advise students to be careful what they say in anger or in jest and to be aware of the discipline that will follow any threats. On Thursday, she and Warner addressed an all-school assembly.

Warner said she prepared for trouble Friday and was relieved that there were no serious incidents.

"We went into this thinking, 'Someone is going to bring a gun to school. Someone is going to bring a knife to school,'" she said.

Three Soldotna police officers and an Alaska State Trooper patrolled Soldotna High School and Soldotna Middle School.

"We wanted high visibility and a high presence in the schools to ward off any comments, any threats that might occur. We patrolled the halls talking with them. We had lunch with them. It was just being there," she said. "I got comments back that they felt safer."

Kenai police were at Kenai Central High School and Kenai Middle School on Friday morning following rumors of a bomb threat at the high school Thursday night, said Lt. Jeff Kohler. However, school officials said the rumors were false.

"There was no bomb threat. It started after school. A couple of parents called," said Hank Overturf, assistant principal at KCHS. "I'm not sure how it spread to Kenai Middle School."

Once it started, though, Kohler said, it spread like the classic whisper-in-a-circle game.

He said there were no reports of threats or trouble Friday in Kenai schools. There were no such reports either to Homer or Seward police or to troopers covering unincorporated areas of the Kenai Peninsula, other agencies said.

"We had a wonderful day, today," said Robin Williams, principal of Nikiski Middle Senior High. "We had a trooper assigned to come here. When he came, everything was so quiet and everyone's demeanor was so happy that I told him I didn't need him to stay."

The trooper returned briefly at lunch, she said, but the school still was quiet.

John Pothast, Skyview High School's principal, said troopers patrolled the Skyview parking lot. However, he had heard of no threats or violence at Skyview by mid-morning.

"I told my staff that it's a school day, and we need to treat today like every other day. The kids are here to learn, and that's what we're doing," he said. "I encourage the teachers to do what we do every day -- be out and about (between periods) when the kids are in the halls. The more you're with the kids, the more you get to know them and the more you can deter anything."

Donna Peterson, school district superintendent, said school workers were vigilant Friday, but she had heard of no untoward events. Meanwhile, school officials have worked with police and troopers to prepare for trouble.

"We have full critical incident plans at every school," she said. "In general, it's either shelter in place or evacuate. We can't say which until the incident happens. We use the incident command system. We train all our administrators and pass it on to the teachers at the beginning of the year."

After the recent school shootings in California, the district reviewed its procedures for dealing with threats, she said.

"The change, if any, after California, was to make sure the individual schools were checking in with the central office, because we wanted to know what was happening district-wide. ... We wanted to be consistent with the consequences for students," she said.

Over the last month or so, students have tested the limits at virtually all of the district's larger schools, but incidents do not become public until the school board disciplines a student, she said.

Earlier this month, several students left a note saying there was a bomb at Seward Middle High School.

"Police were called. We barricaded the entrance. They did the search. They followed the procedure for bomb threats," Peterson said.

No bomb was found, and several students confessed to leaving the note, she said. They were suspended for 45 days, and the case was referred to juvenile authorities.

"It was stupid kids. That's what all of these are turning out to be. We're telling the kids, 'You can't make jokes,'" Peterson said.

She said a Skyview student was expelled Monday for bringing a firearm onto school grounds. There was no threat or malicious intent, and the student never brought the weapon inside the school building, she said. However, even a rifle in the gun rack of a truck in the parking lot would violate the rules.

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