Friday, April 24, 2009

Shooting threat prompts school security

Handwritten threat note found in WRHS bathroom


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Hailey Police Investigator Larry Clark inspects a backpack Wednesday at Wood River High School while Ketchum Police Detective Scott Manning and students Cameron Murphy and Jesse Ferguson stand by. Photo by David N. Seelig

Police say it may have been a hoax, but Blaine County School District officials and Hailey police took a threat seriously this week of a "shooting" intended at Wood River High School.

Security remained tight at the school on Thursday, but was downgraded from Wednesday, the day a handwritten note found at the school said the shooting would occur.

"It's a little bit lighter, but we do have a strong presence there," Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter said Thursday. "We don't have as many officers there, but we're more visible and we've secured the perimeter. We're confident the school is safe.

However, Gunter said, "it's looking like a hoax, and you just can't keep blowing away resources on a hoax."

The threatening note was found one day after the 10th anniversary of a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. Twelve students and a teacher were murdered at the school in the south Denver suburb after two students went on a shooting rampage and later killed themselves.

Hoax or not, Hailey police and Blaine County School District officials took the note seriously after it was found by a student around 2 p.m. Tuesday in an upstairs boys' bathroom at the high school. District Superintendent Jim Lewis said the student took it to a teacher, who took it to the school office. The district office was then notified and the school's security plan was implemented.

"I had to make a decision whether it was a hoax or not and decided to play it on the safe side," Lewis said. "You just never know about these things.

"I want to compliment the police department because they did right away what they needed to do."

Police and school officials conducted a thorough search of the high school Tuesday evening but found nothing out of the ordinary.

"We searched the lockers, backrooms, ceilings, everywhere," Lewis said. "We were looking for weapons or anything kind of suspicious."

A closed campus policy was instituted Wednesday and Thursday. Students weren't allowed to leave the premises until the end of the school day. Eighteen police officers were assigned to the school on Wednesday morning and searched students and their belongings.

Similar security measures were put in place at the nearby Community Campus. Also, police were present at all schools in the district and at the private Community School in Sun Valley.

Hailey police received assistance from the Blaine County Sheriff's Office and the Ketchum Police Department.

Hailey Assistant Police Chief Dave Stellers commanded about a half-dozen police officers, some of them armed with assault rifles, at the high school later Wednesday morning.

"I don't know if it's a hoax," Stellers said. "I just have to assume it's real."

Stellers said police have been called to the school in the past because of bomb threats, but that Wednesday's mobilization was the largest police presence ever at the school. The coverage included Patrol Officer Raul Ornelas, who was armed with a sniper rifle, on the roof.

Many parents opted to keep children home Wednesday as attendance at the high school dropped to about 50 percent.

Assistant Principal Keith Nelson said about 17 percent of the students weren't in school Thursday. That translates into 151 students missing out of 874 enrolled. Nelson said the school's normal absenteeism is about 50 students per day.

Nelson said Thursday seemed more like a normal school day, unlike Wednesday with student searches and a high police presence.

"Give me one of those days only once or twice in a lifetime," he said. "We want to thank the Hailey police. We sure appreciate those guys. They've been really great."

Friday is parent-teacher conference day and no classes are scheduled at the high school.

It was not clear Thursday how long and what level of security will remain in place at the high school and other district schools in the near future.

Gunter said police will likely meet with school officials Friday to discuss the situation.

The police chief declined to say whether police will continue to search students and their belongings.

"We have a security plan, but it's not a security plan if everyone knows how it works," he said. "But it worked flawlessly yesterday and was flawless again today."

Police are also investigating the note in an attempt to determine who wrote it.

"We're following up on leads," Gunter said. "We're definitely in an investigative mode, as is the school district."

Lewis said video cameras mounted in the hallway near the bathroom where the note was found may help identify the writer of the note.

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com

How parents found out

Tuesday's incident tested the utility of the Blaine County School District's emergency text-messaging system.

The system, which parents can sign up for at no cost, sends text messages to cell phones with important school messages. The school district put the system online last August.

At 4:16 p.m. on Tuesday, some just over 1,000 Blaine County School District parents received this text message from the district: "Threatening note—found at HS about tomorrow, taking seriously, school will be open at 7AM thru front door only, campus closed at lunch."

To sign up for the alert system, go to www.blaineschools.org.

The system allows users to choose among schools about which to receive the messages.




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