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Minnesota school revamps communication policy after threat

A threatening message on a high school bathroom wall and the aftermath has Aitkin Public Schools rethinking how it communicates with parents.Tuesday night, the school district was informed of a threatening note left on a bathroom wall during a bo...

A threatening message on a high school bathroom wall and the aftermath has Aitkin Public Schools rethinking how it communicates with parents.
Tuesday night, the school district was informed of a threatening note left on a bathroom wall during a boys' basketball game. The words, written lightly in pencil, were spread over a couple of walls. The writer claimed to have a bomb, hated the system and a time around noon was left on another wall but without a day or date. Law enforcement was called and did a sweep of the building after the basketball game. Nothing out of the ordinary was discovered.

Bernie Novak, Aitkin Public Schools superintendent, said as the threat was nonspecific the school leadership consulted with law enforcement and decided to continue with classes Wednesday but include a monitoring police presence at the high school beginning at 6 a.m. It was unknown when the threat was written.

During the school's first period, students were gathered for an assembly and informed why law enforcement officers were in the building. Novak said it was a good opportunity to remind students to say something is they see something. Students came forward after the assembly to say they had seen the writing days earlier.

Novak said he didn't feel there was any danger as they didn't see a credible threat. His own son attended high school as usual as did other children of school staff members. After the assembly, students began emailing or texting parents. Novak said he understood some of those messages may have indicated a threat included a gun, which wasn't accurate. Some parents arrived to collect their children. Other parents dropped their children off only to feel surprised by seeing law enforcement officers there. Novak said he realized those issues could have been allieviated by sending messages to parents through an already existing communication system.

Novak said many parents were upset. He said they wanted to be informed earlier of the threat so they could make a decision whether to send their children to school that day or not.


"I agree with them," Novak said. "That should have been their call."

Novak said he should have put a message out to parents through a mass text/email on Tuesday night. The last time the school reacted to a threat was about seven years ago. Novak said they followed the district's procedure again this time, but it wasn't updated to include the changes in social media and increase use of cellphones.

"I didn't address the social media as I should have," Novak said.

After the Tuesday night sweep of the buildings, Novak said another sweep was conducted Wednesday morning with the custodians.

"We felt we were taking the proper steps with the law enforcement," Novak said. "We didn't want to panic people either. If we felt it was a credible threat, we would have closed the school down."

About 600 students attend Aitkin High School.

Novak said some students did go home early Wednesday. He said Thursday was a normal day. Thursday afternoon, Novak was meeting with the administrative team to look at what went right and what went wrong.

Novak noted law enforcement was called and the district's crisis management plan followed.


"That worked very well," Novak said. "There was a communication breakdown in getting info out to parents. Thank God nothing happened and we read it right in that respect but we realize we did things wrong with our communication."

Novak said the experience is giving the district an opportunity to work on areas it needs to address and update.

"Was it something to panic over, absolutely not," Novak said.

He said he wouldn't have continued with the school day if he thought there was a credible threat or had his own son attend classes.

"I don't want anything to happen to my son," Novak said. "I followed the police advice."

Novak said he thinks there would have been critics if they had closed school as well.

"I think we did the right thing," he said of continuing with classes and bringing in a police presence. "Are we learning from it? Absolutely."

Novak said he thought they did the best with the information they were working with at the time, but noted if parents had received an update that a threatening message was discovered, classes would continue as usual and police officers would be at school, it would have gone a long way to diminish the issues the district was having now.


As an immediate change, Novak said they've crafted a statement that can be sent out to parents as soon as possible. He said he understands parents who feel the communication system didn't work. "I don't blame them. If you have that tool available to you, why aren't you using it."
Renee Richardson

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