Parents, officials review handling of recent high alert
A week after a perceived threat against an unspecified school that was posted on the internet put Del Norte County Unified School District on high alert, parents aired their concerns to school district and law enforcement officials.
Many parents on Tuesday said district officials should have notified them of the threat that night. Others were concerned about whether the situation was adequately communicated to teachers and students. And some said they were concerned about limited law enforcement resources and their ability to adequately secure Del Norte County's schools.
"To me any threat to do harm is viable until proven otherwise," school parent Jeremy Lacy said, adding that he was concerned about the length of time between when the threat was known to school officials and when parents were informed. "You don't know that it's not (viable). We don't want another Sandy Hook because we had vague information on a public domain."
A Crescent City police officer discovered the apparent threat on the social media website Whisper.com late on the night of April 29. The message was posted around 9:45 p.m. It read: "I have planned the deaths of over half the people at my school,"
according to Jeff Napier, the district's assistant superintendent.
The school district notified parents of the threat via an automated call at 10:50 a.m. the next day, stating that schools were on high alert. Classes remained in session, but parents were welcome to sign their kids out.
Around noon on April 30, a female high school student accepted responsibility for the post.
According to Crescent City Police Chief Doug Plack, the student who made the statement said she didn't mean to create panic and apologized. Officers released the student to her parents after questioning her last week.
Olson said the student is an honors student and has never been in trouble before. But, he said, she has been disciplined for disrupting school activities.
District Superintendent Don Olson, who was in Santa Barbara at a California State Superintendents Association meeting last week, said Crescent City police notified him about the threat at about 12:30 a.m. on April 30, but stated that it wasn't credible enough to cancel school. He said that any time the district or a school receives a threat, education officials immediately notify and work with local law enforcement on how to respond.
School and law enforcement officials didn't want to create panic last week, Olson told parents on Tuesday. But he acknowledged that the district could have communicated better with parents.
In the case of similar future threats, the district will notify parents immediately and will give them the option of keeping their child out of school if it's a low-level threat, Olson said. If law enforcement think a threat has a higher level of credibility, the district will cancel school that day, he said.
"We're not the only people in the community that gauges threat level," he said. "I know that you as parents and me when I was a parent, anything perceived as a threat causes you pause and causes you worry."
According to Olson, the school district receives threats from students almost every year. But this is the first threat made at a district school over the internet, he said. Last week when the district went on high alert, Olson said he asked law enforcement to patrol Crescent Elk Middle School and Del Norte High School.
Olson asked Dennis Louy, the district's school safety trainer, to be available at schools that law enforcement couldn't patrol. And he asked every principal to stay at their respective sites.
However, while each school district site was notified of the threat, Olson said district officials didn't notify local charter schools, private schools or College of the Redwoods of the threat.
"We strongly believed it was a Del Norte High School issue," he said.
Steve Godla, assistant superintendent of instruction and educational services, reported that principals saidthe district should have informed local charter schools, private schools and CR of the threat. He added that a Spanish and Hmong interpreter was necessary when notifying parents of a potential threat.
Another concern was the use of a new internet application to post messages or send out threats. Some parents were concerned that the Whisper.com posting was perceived to only apply to a high school or middle school student.
"I know there's some fifth or sixth-graders that have had cell phones for at least a couple years, and they're not simple flip phones. They've got smart phones, they know what they're doing," one parent said.
Godla responded by saying the district is currently in the process of teaching digital citizenship to its students. The lesson teaches kids about cyber bullying, responsible use of technology and social media, he said. Godla added that 90 percent of the discipline issues between students start on social media.
"Kids are growing up online," he said. "This is happening to all of us."
Olson offered to hold a similar digital citizenship seminar for parents, encouraging them to bring their smart phones and tablets.
Louy, who helped the school district bring its phone system up to date, encouraged parents to visit
PrepareDelNorte.com, which is facilitated through Cindy Henderson and the Del Norte County Office of Emergency Services, for up-to-date, factual information.
In addition to the steps the district and law enforcement takes, Bess Maxwell Elementary School teacher Martha Albro urged parents to make sure they're aware of any potential threats or danger and to not be shy about reporting it to school authorities.
"A lot of things that could have happened are prevented because somebody had told a school official," she said. "This was something we all have to see, we all knew it was a threat, but lots of times we don't see those. Please make sure your children are vigilant."
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com.