Castlegar’s mayor says social media rumours made an alleged threat of violence at the local high school worse than it needed to be.
At a city council meeting Monday afternoon, Mayor Maria McFaddin, who has children that attend Stanley Humphries Secondary School (SHSS), said she was satisfied with the speed that the school contacted parents, but not with how false information spread around the community.
“My encouragement for the community is that we have a degree of trust in those that are taking care of these things — something that may not have been an issue got out on social media and turned into a very big issue and caused a lot of panic in a lot of young people that it didn’t need to do and I know a lot of parents contributed to it.”
On Sunday evening, April 16, a report was made to the Castlegar RCMP that a student had allegedly made a threat to inflict violence at SHSS through social media. But RCMP didn’t issue that release until around 11 a.m. on April 17 due to a staffing absence in the regional RCMP media department.
RCMP said after they received the initial report, officers collected information, school officials were immediately engaged and the student and their parents were contacted.
Sgt. Monty Taylor told Castlegar News that based on the information collected at the time, the decision was made that the threat level to the school was low and the school could remain open. But Taylor could not share what that information was.
An email was sent to SHSS parents at 7 a.m. on Monday, but emails were not sent to parents at the two schools directly across the street from the high school or any other schools in the city.
The email sent by SHSS principal Ian Cooper was vague, mentioning “worrisome online behaviour involving Stanley Humphries students circulating on social media.” It said the school was working with the RCMP and district office.
A second follow-up email was sent to parents later that morning stating, “We have continued to work closely with district staff and RCMP, and both continue to advise there is no threat to school safety.”
But in the vacuum of information, speculation spread around the community and the student population.
Castlegar News received tips that included someone had threatened to kill all of the teachers, that there was someone at the school with a gun, and that there was someone with a gun, knives and a hit list.
The mayor said her children had even received messages saying that there had been a shooting at the school.
When school opened Monday morning, police and local victim services staff were present. But a number of students stayed home, uncertain about the situation, according to multiple sources who spoke to the Castlegar News.
Kootenay-Columbia School District 20 did not issue a statement to local media until around 1 p.m. on Monday, April 17. It used the same vague language about “worrisome online behaviour” and didn’t give any further details about the incident, but did state that the district had activated a violence threat risk assessment protocol.
Castlegar News has reached out to SD20 regarding the district’s response to the situation, decision to leave the school open and its emergency plans.
Councillor Cherryl MacLeod, who works at the Robson Community School, said she thought notifications should have gone out to the whole community.
She reported that parents had pulled kids out of the Robson school because of the uncertainty.
“I get that you say it was a low risk, but I wonder if it would have been better to be in front of it and put something out for the whole community. The unknowing and the angst it caused by not having it come out to everybody … that is the real thing we struggled with.
“If we don’t get the correct information — people make up their own.”
“There was terrified parents and kids out there,” added councillor Sue Heaton-Sherstobitoff.
One SHSS parent, who the Castlegar News won’t name to protect the identity of their child, said her child was still not ready to return to school days later because of the anxiety the situation induced.
“The principal’s email said student safety was a priority, but they didn’t make our children feel safe,” said the parent. “The students needed to hear that the situation had been handled.”
McFaddin’s encouragement was to look for information from official sources.
“But if you haven’t heard it from them — don’t listen to the rumour mill. Unfortunately, I think that rumour mill made it much worse than it would have been if it had just stayed with ‘We’ve assessed it, they’re safe, let them go to school.’”
RCMP confirmed that no arrests have been made related to the incident, but that the matter is still under investigation.