COLUMBIA — Columbia Superintendent Chris Belcher thinks it's all just rumors, but he's restricting access and putting other security measures in place Friday at Hickman, Rock Bridge and Douglass high schools just the same.
In a letter emailed to parents Thursday morning, Belcher said the move addresses "rumors and chatter regarding a possible violent act at one of our high schools — mostly in the form of a gun being brought to campus or a possible shooting."
Belcher wrote that the Columbia Police Department has "thoroughly investigated the rumors and can find no credible evidence or validity to the reports."
Later in an interview, Belcher said Facebook and Twitter were searched for any evidence of a threat and nothing was found.
Belcher said he was reluctant to speak for the police but his understanding was that in addition to searching social media, officers have gone to homes to follow up on rumors and to talk with students' parents about them. He said that's all he knew.
Officer Latisha Stroer, spokeswoman for the Columbia Police Department, said the rumors had not been found credible.
Stroer confirmed the search of social media but said she had not been advised of any other specifics in the investigation. She directed questions to two investigators, who could not be reached late Thursday afternoon.
Belcher said school environments are particularly sensitive in light of the tragedy in Connecticut last week.
"Some students are showing a lack of maturity to appropriately process this event," he said. "Kids are passing around information like, ‘I bet this could happen here,’ and that turns into, ‘It is happening here.’ Then, of course, students and parents get concerned."
The following steps will be taken Friday:
- High schools will be closed campuses. Students can leave campus only if there is an academic need such as attending classes at other locations or other reasons such as going to work or an internship or by permission of parents.
- Access to buildings will be strictly controlled. Students may come and go only through designated doors, and staff will be stationed at the doors to control access.
- Possible student searches.
- Increased police patrols around buildings.
Such measures could continue, depending on whether they are needed, the letter said.
There is a timely spin to the rumors, Belcher said.
"It's the end of the semester, and this makes rumors more appealing to students to believe," he said. "Kids have been joking about the Mayan end of the year. No one believes it, of course, but that seems appealing to the comedic side of some students."
It's not just happening in Columbia. The Associated Press reported that a teenager was taken into custody for making an "unspecified threat" to be carried out Friday against the Savannah High School north of Kansas City.
The Fort Osage R-1 School District east of Kansas City posted on its Facebook page that the district is "dealing with rumors" about a student bringing a weapon to school Friday. Additional officers will be posted to ease student and parental anxiety, schools Superintendent Mark Enderle posted Thursday afternoon.
Jefferson City Public Schools sent a text to parents this week saying, "Our schools are dealing with several rumors that have some students more on edge than usual," according to its website.
In his letter Thursday, Belcher said that in light of the recent tragedy, parents should talk with their children about the seriousness of threats.
"The statements and rumors being spread constitute terroristic threats and are subject to punishment according to Board of Education policy, which could include, but is not limited to, expulsion," Belcher wrote.
He said law enforcement agencies are taking threats seriously and "are pursuing prosecution even when such incidents are intended as pranks," he wrote.
"It’s just a really disturbing, sick thing for anyone to make light of," Belcher said in an interview. "You can’t joke about someone having a weapon at an airport, and you can’t here. These threats cannot exist where these terrible things have occurred."
"I feel that tomorrow will be like any other day, and there’s no more risk today than tomorrow," he said. "But this communication that we’re hearing deserves some attention."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.
This letter was emailed to parents Thursday morning from Chris Belcher, Columbia Public Schools superintendent. The district is taking action to stop the spread of rumors regarding the high schools, according to Michelle Baumstark, spokeswoman for the schools.