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Scared students skip school

Whether genuinely worried or just happy for a day off, nearly 350 students stayed home Wednesday from two Fargo schools where rumors of pending attacks had spread.

Whether genuinely worried or just happy for a day off, nearly 350 students stayed home Wednesday from two Fargo schools where rumors of pending attacks had spread.

Assurances from school district officials and police that the buildings were safe weren't enough for everyone.

Wednesday marked the sixth anniversary of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting. The date has played a part in at least four threatening rumors in recent weeks at Fargo schools, said district spokesman Lowell Wolff.

Ashleigh Smith, a ninth-grader at Discover Junior High, said she and a bunch of her friends stayed home, mostly because their parents made them.

"Of course our parents are scared for us, but I was pretty freaked out myself," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "Even though they were just rumors, I couldn't take a chance."

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At Ben Franklin Junior High, police tried to quell gossip last week of a student's hit list and an attack on April 20. Word spread that the student had posted the list on her blog, but police said they found no evidence of the threat.

About 200 of Ben Franklin's 926 students stayed home, about four times the normal absentee rate of five percent. Across town at Discovery, about 145 of the school's 1,100 students stayed home. About 50 students normally miss school, Wolff said.

At Ben Franklin, eighth-grader Reily Porter attended classes. After school she said some kids who stayed home were scared, but others just used the rumor as an excuse to skip.

"There were a lot of people gone today," she said.

Seventh-grader Sam Masseth said his mom had asked him if he was worried enough to stay home.

"I'm like, 'Yeah, mom, I doubt anything's going to happen,' " he said, resting on his bike beside a friend after school.

Masseth said he wasn't worried. Besides, if anything did happen, the school has enough security, including a DARE officer with a Taser and a gun, Masseth said.

That officer, Kelly DeBerg, stood outside in the warm afternoon as students left Ben Franklin for the day.

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"It was mellow," he said, referring to his day.

To be safe, Fargo police sent extra patrol officers to schools at the beginning of the day.

District officials told schools to treat the absences as excused. Parents were afraid for their children's safety, much like they would be when the school decides to open during a winter storm, Wolff said.

"If we think conditions are safe, we're going to have school," he said. "That doesn't mean parents will agree with us."

Asked if he worried students might take advantage of the situation, Wolff said: "We trust the parents are going to be our partners in this and not be easily fooled by their kids."

Attendance Wednesday at high schools and other middle schools in the area were normal.

The March 21 school shooting in Red Lake, Minn., has been another source of anxiety for parents, Wolff said.

In the weeks since, schools elsewhere have battled bomb threats and rumors of attacks that proved harmless. The Lake Park-Audubon (Minn.) district received two bomb threats, one on April 8 and the other three days later.

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The district was subsequently hit with a "barrage" of rumors and false information, Superintendent Dale Hogie said. He urged people to be careful when repeating things they've heard without confirming the source.

"We've learned how quick false information spreads," Hogie said.

Rumors involving Hitler's birthday, also April 20, and possible threats to school security are nothing new, said Kent Baldry, Pelican Rapids superintendent.

He said he dealt with several such rumors a few years ago when he was superintendent of the South St. Paul (Minn.) School District.

Reporters Dave Olson, Erin Froslie and Jonathan Knutson contributed to this report. Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538

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