Story last updated at 2:56 p.m. Thursday, September 26, 2002

School threats raise concerns

McNeil students charged, suspended

by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

Three students at Homer's McNeil Canyon Elementary School have been charged with terroristic threatening for allegedly planning to bring weapons to school last Friday and use them during recess to take over the school.

The 10-, 11- and 12-year-old boys had been talking about the plan for at least a couple of days, said McNeil Principal Pete Swanson. The students have been suspended until further notice, and disciplinary action will be considered at a later date.

"This is being investigated and followed through to its furthest possible extent, both in the school and with the (Alaska State Troopers)," Swanson said.

Charges are being filed against all three students with the state's Juvenile Probation Intake Office.

At least three other students talked to Swanson after overhearing the boys talking about bringing weapons to school last Thursday (See related story, page 13A).

It was not clear whether the students actually would have gone through with their plan if it had not been thwarted, said Greg Wilkinson, public information officer for the troopers.

"Was it a joke? It doesn't matter," he said. "It doesn't matter. What's important is that it's being taken seriously by the school and by the troopers."

But Trooper Tom Dunn, who responded to the scene and headed up the investigation, said he believes they would have followed through.

"I believe it was going to happen," he said. "Based on conversations with the kids, I think yes, it would have happened. Every residence in which the kids lived had weapons, had firearms. At least one had pistols. The others had long rifles.

"I don't know to what extent they would have carried it out, but I believe they would have brought weapons to school," Dunn said. "I feel right now, in terms of direct involvement, it was limited to those three students."

The plan involved soliciting other students' help, weapons, and ropes and chains with which to tie up adults, Swanson said, but he believes it was less an actual plan than "a lot of talk."

"There were no specific targets," he said. "They wanted to hold the school hostage for more recess time. Fifteen years ago, I'd be calling their parents in and having the 'stupidity' talk. But times have changed so much that we have to bring down the hammer."

Dunn said the students told him they were "upset because of too much homework, and wanted uninterrupted free time."

"You've got to look at it on a scale in terms of where these kids were," Swanson said. "Even if it is only scale one, you've got to treat it the same as if it were a ten."

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Assistant Superintendent Gary Whitely said Swanson's actions were in line with district policy.

"We will treat it the same way whether it's bluster or an actual threat," he said. "Our relationship with our principals is that, if they feel it's terroristic threatening, they remove the kids from the school until an evaluation can be done by a clinical psychologist. Once the threat assessment comes back -- how much of a risk, if any, the student actually poses -- we decide whether to let the student back to school. If some therapy is recommended, we see to that."

Since the news first broke last week, a slew of rumors have flooded the school and spilled out into the town.

Swanson said it is important to reaffirm that no weapons were brought onto campus, and that no list of weapons or targets was found or believed to exist.

A list was found of other students "with one thing in common," Swanson said, though he did not elaborate. He believes the list was a sort of recruitment roster for the three boys' cause, but none of the students named seemed to be aware of its presence.

"Also, it's important to note that when they spoke about their plan, they spoke about 'taking the school hostage,'" Swanson said. "They didn't talk about killing anybody, or harming anybody. They didn't talk about blowing anything up. It was a control issue."

When Swanson confronted the accused students, he said they were aware of the repercussions of their actions.

"They knew they were in big trouble," he said. "They understood, and they were made aware that law enforcement was on the way."

While the students made no overt displays of regret -- "There was no 'sorry, sorry, sorry,'" Swanson said -- the students were emotionally distraught at being caught.

"They knew they were in deep," he said.

The students' parents have been cooperating with the administration, Swanson said, though their reactions have "run the gamut."

"All of us as parents want to think the best of our children," he said. "Being supportive of your child and holding them accountable can be difficult. It can be confusing, and it's scary for parents. They're looking for support."

Dunn said the students' attitudes were "typical of young kids -- very immature, crying. They got caught and they knew it. They're scared and they've got a lot of things coming at them."

On Friday morning, Swanson went from room to room at the small East End Road school, quelling students' fears and talking about safety. He also met with his staff and spent much of the day fielding phone calls from parents and the media.

"I've been telling everyone the school is safe," he said last Friday. "I have two children here myself, and they came to school today. At no point were there any weapons on campus. The students are safe, the school is safe and was never in any imminent danger. What we had was an implied threat."

Whip, a McNeil School parent, said she made the decision Friday to send her student to school -- but to escort him.

"I chose to go up to the school the day after this happened, and I stayed there," she said. "I wanted to have another adult presence in the school and to see how things were going. The school felt very good, the kids were learning and they were comfortable. Pete (Swanson) handled it very well, with as little impact to the kids as possible, while taking care of their safety. It was business as usual."

Faith Schade, a parent of two McNeil students and a frequent volunteer at the school, said her fifth-grade daughter was comfortable returning to school following the incident, even if Schade herself was a bit hesitant.

"My daughter was fine, but her mother was having a hard time," she said. "I do think the school is safe. It's a great school. But my concern is that it's going to be chalked up to a problem with home life too quickly. I'm not sure the school is doing enough to look into whether it was a reaction to other students' actions or some sort of school problem."

Swanson said the three students charged with making the threats have no significant history of disciplinary problems. He spoke directly to Schade's concerns about their driving motives.

"We pressed them (on their reasons)," he said. "Was it an anger toward somebody or something in particular? The only thing they were able to put their fingers on as a reason was the desire for a longer lunch break.

"We definitely recognize what these kids did as a cry for help, but what would cause that?" he asked. "Is it something at home, or is it some social thing?

"It's an ongoing look, and it's just one of the multiples of pieces that, as a staff, we're looking into. We're not done with this."

Chris Bernard can be reached at cbernard@homernews.com.

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