Rumors of a school shooting plot prompted three school districts to cancel Friday classes for about 20,000 students in Kootenai County.
Although police have not verified a real threat of violence, the persistent rumors rattled many students and parents, and attendance has dropped all week, officials said.
“The reason we’re canceling school is not because we think there is a credible threat but because the fear and the panic is just so palpable that we didn’t believe we could have a productive, calm day,” Coeur d’Alene Superintendent Hazel Bauman said.
Nerves have been raw since the Connecticut school massacre one week ago, and doomsday scenarios based on the end of the Mayan calendar Friday have only fueled gossip and worries.
“There’s just so much angst among our students and our parents, even though the rumors are unsubstantiated and there’s no credible threat,” Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane said. “The anxiety is extraordinary and we just feel like we can’t have a reasonable school day.”
School districts in other parts of the country were dealing with similar distractions. Schools in Michigan, Oklahoma and North Dakota were among those canceling classes to cool off rumored threats of violence.
Police in Fort Pierce, Fla., arrested a teen who they say posted a Facebook message threatening to “bring a gun to school tomorrow and shoot everyone.”
In North Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene School District was the first to announce it would cancel all school activities Friday, the last day before the holiday break.
The Post Falls and Lakeland districts quickly followed suit. The Kootenai Technical Education Campus in Rathdrum and Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy also are closed Friday.
City police and the sheriff’s office advised the district it would be best to cancel school, Bauman said.
“Already we’d seen a huge downturn in attendance in the last day or two and know that tomorrow would probably be even worse,” she said today.
“It’s our duty to have an environment that’s psychologically safe as well as physically safe,” Bauman added.
“I just hope that the holiday break will be time for us to restore some calm,” Bauman said.
In Post Falls, Keane said the decision was about much more than responding to rumors.
“It’s about what kind of peace of mind can our community have,” he said. “We’re in a lot different place than we were about a week ago in regards to school safety.”
Bauman said the decision was particularly difficult in the absence of any verification of a threat of gun violence.
“The hardest part is you hate to in some ways acquiesce to what might be just a tactic to create disruption and to cause fear,” she said.
The district’s staff and police worked hard to chase down any leads that might verify an actual threat, Bauman said. “And frankly there isn’t any.”
Rumors that someone was planning to bring a gun to a school today spread through hallways and in students’ Facebook posts. Coeur d’Alene police officers assigned to schools tried to track down the source of the rumors, spokeswoman Sgt. Christie Wood said.
“We have had our patrol officers do extra patrol of all school facilities this week,” Wood said. “We are hoping the Christmas break brings a stress break as well.”
Bauman said she already is weathering criticism for the call: “Are you going to close schools every time you get a threat? Absolutely not,” she said. “We get threats all the time. Kids, we know, think it’s a great little tactic to get out of school.”
That’s why she and other districts vow to make up the lost day. The Coeur d’Alene district will do it Feb. 15, the Friday before President’s Day, which had been a no-school day.
Michele Torres, a parent of two elementary school students in Coeur d’Alene, said she feels torn by the district’s decision. Her children are among many disappointed they’d miss holiday parties and activities planned for Friday.
“In light of everything that has been going on in our country, I understand their eagerness to be safe,” Torres said. But she also worries the decision will encourage some students to spread rumors in hopes of getting out of school.
“I know kids will be kids, but this is not acceptable at all,” Torres said. “It just makes me sad that this is what it’s coming to.”