Like text messages often do, this one spread like wildfire. What it said, exactly, doesn’t matter, but it went something like this:
“He has a hit list posted on his website! School won’t be safe on Monday!”
Many parents were so busy forwarding and reforwarding the text— they were “aggressively promoting the rumors about this danger to our children,” one school official told me—that they apparently didn’t take the time to actually check the Web site.
Police did check it, though: No hit list. No threats. Nothing inappropriate.
So, when Monday came, nothing happened.
At least, nothing violent.
“There were SO many people out today,” my daughter told me when I picked her up at the end of the day. “My English class had, like, ten people absent.” Other classes were apparently so sparse that teachers didn’t even bother to teach a lesson or give assignments.
While the school district hasn’t released the exact number of absentees, they did confirm around ten percent of the students from the middle school (which adjoins the high school) stayed home. The absentee rate at the high school was a little less than that. According to the attendance office, at least twenty students confirmed that they stayed home specifically because of the threats of violence, although one administrator admitted the number was probably higher.
“[I] will not be in school tomorrow,” one student’s Facebook page announced Sunday night. “[NAME] is NOT going to get me.”
“Are you going to go to school?” another student asked. “I don’t think I’m going to,” came another reply. “I really don’t want to die tomorrow, at least not by being killed by some dumb boy.”
“[NAME] is going to kill everyone,” another student posted. “[NAME] threatened to shoot up the school. It’s really scary,” added another.
Back in December, the unnamed student was involved in a series of disruptive behaviors, which school administrators and the student’s parents promptly and appropriately responded to. Problem solved. Case closed.
Except, supposedly, the student wouldn’t let it go. Rumor began circulating among the student body that the student vowed to get even.
“He’s really creepy, so nobody likes him to begin with,” one student told me. “He’s the kind of kid you’d expect to do something.”
“Every time the principals hear one of these reports, they investigate it,” Superintendent Diane Munro told me. “We cannot take the chance.” In every case, though, investigators found no evidence to suggest any of the rumors were true.
“We haven’t found any of them to be substantiated at all,” High School Principal Cynthia Havers reported to the school board at a meeting on April 21.
Administrators tried several times over the past few months to dispel the rumors, to no avail. Worried parents showed up at school board meetings to express their growing concern. The parents of the student in question showed up to defend their son. They took photos of anyone who spoke out against him. People got angry. Lawyers got involved.
At some point, over the span of months, rumor became accepted knowledge, and accepted knowledge became “fact”: On Monday, April 20, on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings, the disgruntled student was going to go on a shooting spree of his own at Allegany-Limestone High School in rural western New York.
We have reason to worry about such threats. Aside from the specter of Columbine, this particular area is haunted by an even earlier memory. In 1974, a seventeen-year-old with a shotgun and a sniper rifle staked out a spot on the third floor of the high school in Olean, N.Y.—the town immediately adjacent to Allegany. Before he surrendered to police, he killed three people and wounded eleven others. (He later hung himself in his jail cell.) It’s considered the first school shooting in America.
So, at Allegany-Limestone, by the weekend prior to the Columbine anniversary, tensions among students were running at fever pitch. Students would be coming back to school after a two-week spring break, and none of them knew what to expect.
Then came the final supernova of text messages.
“Panic grew, in part, due to a very large number of text messages that went out over the weekend,” Havers said in her April 21 report to the board.
But even as parents and students began questioning whether kids should really go to school, Munro, Havers, and other school district officials were working with law enforcement agencies to conduct what Havers would describe as a series of “safety procedures” at the high school. The building was searched top to bottom.
On Monday, aside from the regular police officer assigned to the school, an additional sheriff’s deputy was on duty at the school and, district officials confirmed, there was an extra police presence outside the school as well. Teachers did patrols in the hallways. Administrators went into classes to talk with students about the situation.
My daughter and I talked about the situation Sunday evening, and I let her make up her own mind about going to school the next day. I told her I thought things would be fine, but I only wanted her to go if she felt comfortable. In the end, she did. So did many of her friends.
“there will be many precautions taken if all these parents are worked up about it,” a student posted on Facebook. “one crazy wack job isn’t preventing me from doing anything.”
Another student expressed some nervousness but refused to be intimidated: “he will know that we are scared of him if we back down.”
“i personally think none of us should have to be afraid to go to school though and someone should deal with that asap,” wrote another.
And that, perhaps, is the nub of the problem. Do students have to be afraid to go to school? Do parents need to worry about sending their kids off for an education?
That’s the cost of Columbine. That’s its lasting legacy.
And we saw it all across the country on Monday—although we see it lurking in almost every suspicious backpack in every dim hallway on any given day, too.
On Monday, a friend near Seattle, Washington said her son’s school had “a known text message threat.” The local police were involved, she said, but no parents were notified. “The principal sent a note to the students during first period saying the school was safe,” my friend told me.
Another friend near Boulder, Colorado said her son’s school had a full-scale evacuation on Monday because a couple from Nevada were geo-caching in the school’s front yard—digging up a time capsule buried by a history teacher a couple years ago—and school officials got suspicious.
“The school officials called police, who in turn became concerned about three stray backpacks, and initiated the lockdown, then the evacuation,” my friend wrote. “Nothing turned out to be a problem—the box, the backpacks—all were innocuous. No ill-intentioned text messages or efforts at a prank. But as you note, Chris, the legacy of Columbine (and its progeny, like Virginia Tech) has been to taint us all with such fear and anxiety that every incident becomes a massive deal.”
As parents, my friend and I agree that we would rather school officials play it safe rather than sorry. I’m pleased with the way my own school district handled the situation.
But I can’t begin to tell you how sad I am that all this has to happen in the first place. Nothing happened at Allegany-Limestone, but the entire community still paid a sad price. Even a false alarm cost massive amounts of time, manpower, money, lost productivity, and peace of mind.
“What we’re seeing is the power of fear, the power of rumor, and the dangers of today’s technology,” Munro told me.
What we’re seeing, in other words, is the power of Columbine’s legacy—and we are all diminished for it.