What initially appeared to be a threat against an unspecified school in Del Norte County turned out to be a misunderstanding.
The Del Norte County Unified School District was on high alert on Tuesday until a high school student admitted to posting a message on the internet that had local schools and law enforcement on the lookout, school officials said.
A message on the social media website Whisper.com, which allows users to anonymously post a picture overlaid with text, was brought to a Crescent City Police officer's attention on Monday night.
It read: "I have planned the deaths for over half the people at my school," according toJeff Napier, school district assistant superintendent of business.
Around noon Tuesday, a female student stepped forward to accept responsibility for the post.
"That student was thoroughly interviewed, apologized and stated she didn't mean to create havoc but was frustrated and experiencing some stressors in her life," the Crescent City police department said in a press release.
According to Steve Godla, the district's assistant superintendent of instruction and educational services, the inflammatory statement was part of a longer online conversation.
Immediately after the student's initial post on Whisper, someone responded with "and I shall be sending this to the FBI," Godla said Wednesday. The original poster then responded with "I'm talking about the SIMS game. ..." A few seconds elapsed between each post, Godla said.
"I think only the first statement got shared and not the second," he said. "The one that says 'I'm talking about a video game' would have de-escalated a lot of the anxiety."
The Sims is a computer game that simulates real life situations and allows players to build their own worlds, including a Sims University Life expansion pack.
The student was released into her parents custody on Tuesday afternoon. Police Chief Doug Plack said disciplinary action will be left up to the school, although they will forward the case to the District Attorney's Office as well.
"The individual did do the right thing and came forward," Plack said. "That is no excuse for that type of action. Law enforcement is still investigating all aspects of this situation as well as what led up to this being posted."
The message was sent by someone within a mile of the person that informed local law enforcement of the post.
"This is what we train for. People in all of the law enforcement agencies rehearse for this sort of thing frequently," Plack said. "We had more of a presence of officers at all the schools. All of the school administrators were advised of the scenario. We reallocated officers from other positions to maintain a higher presence around the school and in the residential areas around the school."
The message was posted around 9:45 p.m. on Monday. The school district was notified of the situation, and they in turn informed each of the schools in the county.
Parents received an automated call from the school district at 10:50 a.m. Tuesday informing them of the threat and that schools were on high alert. Schools stayed in session, though parents were welcome to sign their kids out.
According to Superintendent Don Olson, the school district receives similar threats every year. But what made this one different, and public, was the use of a new social media website that protects the identity and location of its posters.
Olson, who is at a California State Superintendents Association conference in Santa Barbara this week, said Crescent City police notified him of the perceived threat early Tuesday morning but didn't give any indication that it was credible enough to cancel school.
"This one was out in public because it was posted on Whisper," he said. "But almost every year, and sometimes more than once a year, we get some student making some foolish statement at school. Whenever we get a threat we always evaluate (if) it is credible."
In those situations, school counselors and sometimes law enforcement will find out from parents if there are weapons kept in the home and if students have access to those weapons, Olson said.
"The hard part for parents is everybody wants to know exactly everything, and maybe as a school district we need to have a community meeting to hear their voices," he said. "From my conversations with law enforcement the next morning, they didn't feel this was a credible threat. (The student) didn't say how they're going to do it, what time they're going to do it and what type of mechanism or device."
Olson said the student who made the statement has never been in trouble and has received high academic honors. Even though the student wasn't arrested, police took a report and Olson said she will be disciplined for disrupting school activities.
"She felt awful," he said. "It's definitely a lesson for the student that caused a lot of people in this community some unrest. I seriously doubt this student will be doing anything like that in the future."
The high school had 69 kids signed out by their parents, and estimated at least that many more left without signing out.
Crescent Elk Middle School, Redwood and Mary Peacock Elementary all estimated around 100 students apiece were taken from class on Tuesday as well.