Local schools see threats after Parkland

A local parent received this postcard that could be interpreted as a threat to a school. While police said they don’t believe there is any threat to the public, Compass Academy stepped up security Thursday as a precaution. Idaho Falls Police Department

Idaho Falls police are investigating a postcard a local parent received that could be interpreted as a threat to a school.

And Teton High School in Driggs will be in session but close its campus on Friday, due to an “unsubstantiated anonymous tip that someone is bringing a weapon to school.”

These are just the two most recent threats reported by local schools since a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland., Fla., two weeks ago. One, in Blackfoot, led the police to take a 14-year-old into custody on charges of threatening violence on school grounds.

A parent in Idaho Falls School District 91 received a postcard with a picture of a semiautomatic rifle and the words “Coming to a school near you?,” police said Thursday. Police said they don’t believe there is any threat to the public. However, Compass Academy stepped up security Thursday as a precaution.

Police said the postcard did not make any direct threats or mention any specific people or schools. However, they are “conducting a thorough investigation with a great sense of urgency,” and have contacted the U.S. Post Office in an attempt to trace its origin. Police said they would notify schools and the public if they have reason to believe there is a real threat.

“We understand things like this can make many people uneasy, especially given the incidents which have happened nationally,” police spokeswoman Holly Cook said in a statement. “We can confidently say that our department is diligently working on this situation.”

District 91 spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne said there was no specific threat to or issue at Compass. However, Compass has a more open campus than the district’s other high schools, and Wimborne said Principal Matthew Bertasso wanted to limit people to using the main entrance just to be safe.

In a Facebook post, Teton school district officials said no specific school was mentioned in the threat.

“There were no details and it is hearsay of a rumor,” they said.

However, the high school’s doors will be locked Friday, and students will have to eat lunch at school. Sheriff’s deputies will be nearby as needed. The district encouraged anyone with any information to call either school administration or the sheriff’s office.

In Blackfoot, the family of the student taken into custody is cooperating, Blackfoot police said. Police said the student didn’t have access to firearms and students and staff were never in danger.

“As soon as the report was made to the school resource officer he immediately made contact with the juvenile and detained him,” police said in a news release Thursday.

Police also said comments and rumors about the case on social media “caused this case to cause fear and anxiety in our community unnecessarily.”

Blackfoot High School canceled classes Thursday due to the threat. Police told school officials early Thursday, after the decision was made, that the threat was not viable. However, school officials also have decided to cancel all classes Friday — kindergartners through eighth-graders weren’t going to have school on Friday anyway due to the end of the trimester. District officials decided to cancel high school as well and to exempt students from their finals exams, unless they are needed to improve their grade or as part of a dual-credit class.

“It is our sentiment that it is not in the best interest of students to ask them to complete a final exam in light of recent events,” the district said in a statement. “If a student desires or is required to take a final exam, the scheduling of that exam will be discussed during the first week of the third trimester. With the understanding that this incident has impacted our community, it is our hope this time away from school will provide an opportunity to have discussions regarding the importance of each individual in our community and how we can better connect with each other.”

In Challis, a high school student was suspended the day after the Parkland shooting for making a threat. Also a day after Parkland, law enforcement and school administrators supervised the entrances and hallways at Teton High School in Driggs after an anonymous tip that someone would be coming to school with a gun.

If it feels like you’ve been seeing more of these threats over the past two weeks, you’re right. The Educator’s School Safety Network, which tracks violent incidents and threats at school, is reporting an average of more than 70 per day over the past two weeks, for a total of 673 incidents and threats affecting 490 schools across all 50 states. Before Parkland, it was 10 per day. The large majority of these are threats, not actual incidents, delivered most often over social media and second-most by word of mouth.

Kathy Cowan, director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists, said it is quite common for the number of threats and the number of tips about at-risk or violent behavior to increase after a mass school shooting. Some of the increase in reporting, she said, is people paying more attention to genuinely worrisome behavior, and some is fed by hoaxes or high anxiety.

People often make threats on social media they have no intent of carrying out. Cowan said social media, both for children and adults, can feel like an alternative reality that is still somewhat connected to the real world, leading to behavior you wouldn’t see offline. Sometimes, people might be having a bad day or week and venting. Sometimes, people make threats to show off or because they think it’s cool. And sometimes, she said, people might genuinely be on the edge. The 24-hour media cycle, she said, contributes to copycat behavior.

“I think there’s a myriad of reasons people do things on social media that they wouldn’t necessarily do in real life,” she said.

Cowan said that, while school administrators and law enforcement have to take threats seriously, it is also important to assess the real risk from every situation and react appropriately.

“We are seeing an uptick in suspensions and expulsions,” she said. “Some of which may be necessary and the right thing to do. But sometimes, they’re not.”

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews