WEST FARGO — West Fargo school officials and police have completed the investigation into a student who allegedly made shooting threats at Cheney Middle School. Authorities found there is "no direct threat," but the student will not immediately return to school.
"The investigation into the alleged threats made by a student on Wednesday has been completed, with the result being no direct threat to the students, staff, or the campus," District Spokeswoman Heather Leas said in a statement Friday, Nov. 8.
Leas said the threat investigation began toward the end of the school day on Wednesday, Nov. 6, when a group of students spoke with administrators at Cheney Middle School about school shooting threats they heard from a fellow student. The child's parents were immediately contacted, and a search of his locker was conducted but nothing was found.
As the school completed a threat assessment and investigation, the student was not in school Thursday or Friday.
"The student’s family has been very cooperative with school administration and law enforcement," Leas said Friday. "They have agreed that the child will not return to school until a reentry plan can be established and all conditions of that plan are met."
Leas said if parents would like additional clarification or reassurance, they should contact their child's administrator or counselor.
"However, it is important to know that we are unable to share specifics from the investigation, the results and what is happening with the student," she said.
Some parents were concerned they did not receive immediate communication about the threat from the school district.
Cheney Principal Don Lennon initially sent a message to staff about the threat report on Thursday morning, but the district waited until later Thursday to send a statement to parents. A second statement was sent to local media Thursday afternoon.
Leas said a message was not immediately sent to parents because there was no social media threat and only a small group of students were aware of the alleged threat. However, once the incident caught the attention of news media, the district prepared a statement to release to the public.
In a second statement sent to media Thursday afternoon, Leas said school staff and West Fargo Police were investigating any threat, which includes whether a threat was actually made, and working through the school district's threat assessment process. The process looks at the detail, context and content of the threat; the amount of disruption the threat creates; and the source. Investigators also look at the alleged student's state of mind, their relationship with peers, age, home life, ability to carry out a threat (such as access to weapons); past behavior and if any laws were broken.
Students and staff are required to report potential threats. In the assessment process, investigators will also look at who reported the threat and any potential motives for reporting a threat.
Leas said a number of factors are included in the district’s process of determining when to communicate with parents a potential incident has occurred at the school, which the district followed the past few days.
The school and the district use an electronic notification system known as Blackboard, which sends emails to parents or in times of high alert, such as a snow day, the system will call parents work, cell and home phones.
Approximately 1,300 students in grades six through eight comprise Cheney Middle School's population. “There are more students at Cheney Elementary than in many cities and towns in North Dakota,” Leas said.
Leas said the district has to filter when to send communication so it does not overwhelm or panic parents.
“Kids say or do things they shouldn't every day. So if we are going to give communication out every time something like that was brought back to our attention we’d be sending out emails all day long,” Leas said. “We’re trying our best to filter those things and speak to parents only when there is imminent danger. We also don’t want to be the district that cries wolf. If we send something home every day, they stop reading those emails.”
The incident happened at the end of the school day on Wednesday and the threat assessment process continued into Thursday so officials quickly decided the student who allegedly made the threats would not return to school until the assessment was finished.
Leas said the district wanted to get further ahead in the threat assessment process before communicating with parents, but the pace of social media sharing and large local media presence brought the incident out ahead of the district.
“That circumvented our process to have our investigation done before we would communicate with families,” Leas said.
It was important to get further into an investigation than just the initial reports, she said, and notifying the public very early can have serious ramifications for the accused student.
“A thorough investigation is important to determine the validity of the threat. We don't have collaborating evidence he said what he said,” Leas said Friday. “But now, most know who this child is, and if it turns out that child didn’t actually make those threats, how does he ever come back to school? We have to protect all of our students and we have a responsibility to the student who is innocent until proven guilty.”
Parents had mixed reactions to the incident and communication. Kathryn Mischke, a parent of a seventh-grader at Cheney Middle School, told WDAY-TV that she did not have any concerns sending her child to school Friday, and she had no problem with the district’s communication.
"They have to investigate it before they even say if it is a true threat," she said. "Things come out all the time. People say things all the time and so if they react to everything it becomes an overreaction and we don't know what's serious and what's not."
In the statement to media Thursday, Leas said the district understands it is human nature for parents to want details of potential harm to their children.
According to district policy, a student who is found to have made a true threat will be subject to discipline, which can include suspension or expulsion. If it is a necessary safety precaution, the district may look for alternative placement of the student and appoint supervision to them during a time of suspension.