Story last updated at 4:45 p.m. Thursday, October 17, 2002

ACLU investigating McNeil incident
by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

The mother of one of three McNeil Canyon Elementary School students charged last month with terroristic threatening recently spoke with the Homer News about the incident.

Her name has been withheld to protect her son's identity.

Her son and two other children were charged for allegedly conspiring to use weapons to take over the school to gain a longer recess.

When other students overheard the plan, they reported it to Principal Pete Swanson.

Swanson called the Alaska State Troopers. The students were questioned, suspended from school, and charged.

The student's mother said her son thought he was playing a game, like "Cops and Robbers" or "Cowboys and Indians," and never intended it to be real.

"My (son) was involved in a game, and it got beyond that," she said.

She also said she believes the incident was mishandled by the school administration and the troopers, and said her son's civil rights were violated. She has petitioned the Alaska Civil Liberties Union for help in the matter.

Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, said her organization has been contacted and is investigating the case.

"The parents are understandably upset at the way the school handled this," she said. "It certainly appears as though this could have been handled better by the school district."

Among other things, the mother charges that Trooper Tom Dunn interrogated her son without a parent being present, and that Dunn did not read her son his Miranda rights.

Dunn did not return calls to the Homer News.

The student's mother's complaints begin immediately after her son was taken to the principal's office.

"I was not contacted promptly," she said.

She learned of the incident from a message Swanson left on her voice mail at work. She said the school did not attempt to reach her by cell phone, even though she had previously listed the number with the school on emergency contact forms.

She also claims that other students were involved in the incident, but were not suspended or charged. Those students' names were found on a list confiscated from one of the three charged students, she said.

"My son and those other kids involved had all made commitments," she said. "There were names on a list, they'd all been asked if they wanted to join. One kid said he'd bring rope to tie up the adults.

"But my son was taken out of his classroom by Pete Swanson and those other children were not," she said. "I think there was impartial treatment."

She said her son and the other two students have Individualized Education Plans, a federally mandated curriculum for students with learning disabilities. She believes the three students were singled out because of those IEPs.

She has hired an attorney, and said that in order for the charges to stick, a "reasonable person would have to have concluded that there was a potential for this to happen."

Following the incident, Trooper Dunn told the Homer News that he believed the students would have followed through on their plan.

But the accused student's mother disagreed, and said that in the weeks following the incident, it has been overblown by the school, the troopers and the media.

"I really fear this is based on fear and hype," she said. "I don't think these kids ever would have gone through with this act."

But, she admitted, even her own son eventually became frightened of the way the discussion had snowballed. She said her son wanted to tell his teacher about the plan, but couldn't find him during lunch break; after lunch, the students were called to the principal's office.

"He was scared to death. He told me, 'I thought it was a joke, I thought we were playing a game.' How could a reasonable person think this would actually happen?" she asked. "These kids were 10, 11, 12 years old."

Since the McNeil incident unfolded, there have been several other events throughout the state involving threats of violence or weapons in schools, including two more in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

Two weeks ago, police said a 14-year old Homer teen arrested on weapons charges brought a loaded handgun to Homer Middle School earlier that day; another teen was arrested for bringing a loaded gun to a school in Bethel, the sight of a fatal 1997 school shooting; a fifth-grader in Healy was charged with terroristic threatening after telling a schoolmate he was going to bring a gun and shoot him; last week, Soldotna High School was evacuated following a bomb threat; and one Haines High School student was arrested Friday and another detained after passing notes detailing how they planned to murder 22 of their classmates.

"These are just kids, and they were just playing a game," the mother said about those involved in the McNeil incident. "Everybody says '(You can't do this in) this day and age. But we've been saying 'this day and age' since the beginning of time.

"You've got a small town with a couple guys who like to see their names in print," she said, referring to school administrators and Trooper Dunn. "They also want safety, they have families and want a safe community, but I don't think they handled it well. I think that we need to not prey on the fear of the community."

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was reluctant to talk about the matter, but Assistant Superintendent Gary Whiteley said that Swanson investigated the situation thoroughly.

"The principal did exhaustive interviews to determine who was involved," he said. "From what I know, all the students involved were charged."

Whiteley said he would not address most of the parent's other concerns.

"We're following the district's policies and procedures in this matter," he said. "I'm not aware of many of the details in this case. If any mistakes were made, I don't feel the media is the place to air them. I'm not going to play 'He said, she said.'"

Following the incident, the mother of one of the students who initially went to Swanson told the Homer News she also thought the school could have been more forthcoming with information.

Swanson said that when that student first approached him, he asked her to return to the classroom and listen some more. At that point she was allegedly threatened by the three students, and went back to Swanson to tell him what she'd heard.

"I found out about this from my daughter and not from the school," her mother said. "I don't think the school has handled this situation very well, in terms of releasing information to the parents.

"She didn't know if those kids would be back, or if all the kids involved in it had been suspended," she said. "There was definitely some fear."

Whiteley said he was not aware Swanson had asked the girl to return to the classroom.

"I think that would be unusual," he said. "There again is a detail I'm not aware of. It's a tricky situation. You have the rights of the parents, the rights of the students, and the safety of the entire school. It's a very difficult position to be in, and I think Pete Swanson handled it well."

Partially in response to the incidents at McNeil and Homer Middle School, several local agencies are planning a community forum and panel discussion called "Together Let's Create a Safe Healthy Community -- A Community at Work to Support its Youth and Schools." The forum is planned for Oct. 24. (See related story, page 22A.)

The charged student's mother also has said she'd be willing to do a public forum, if other parents were interested.

"I have nothing to hide," she said. "I'll do whatever I can to protect my son. I'd advocate just as strongly for other children, because I believe in children's rights.

"I'm not saying there shouldn't be consequences or educational opportunities -- what I'm saying is that what happened was an extreme," she said. "It should have been handled in a better way."

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

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