At a community meeting held Tuesday evening in the Libby Middle/High School gym, school officials explained why they chose not to publicly announce a threat made at the school last week, and pledged to find ways to better handle such situations in the future.
A student discovered the threat — a message suggesting a shooting would occur at the school on Oct. 10 — in a boy's bathroom on Oct. 4.
School officials immediately notified law enforcement of the threat. When investigators found that students were not in imminent danger, school officials decided not to announce the threat and not to cancel homecoming or other school activities.
Nonetheless, word of the threat had spread on social media by Sunday. Ruth VanWorth-Rogers and Jim Germany, the school's principal and vice principal, respectively, fielded phone calls from parents angry not only to have learned about the threat a few days after it occurred, but to have learned about it on Facebook.
At Tuesday's meeting, Superintendent Craig Barringer, VanWorth-Rogers, Germany and Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel faced a crowd of a few hundred adults and children.
“We're here not to be fed to the sharks, but to find a [better] solution,” Barringer said in his opening remarks.
Barringer stressed that they took the threat seriously — “At no time would we ever place students and staff in danger,” he said — but under advisement from law enforcement “did not think it warranted stopping the normal pace of school.”
They also did feared creating unnecessary panic that might hinder the investigation, he said.
“[We thought] the best thing we can do is present a normal routine,” he said. “Right or wrong, that's the plan we went with. We will now ask, what should we have done differently, what would we do the same.”
Acknowledging that it had been “an emotional week for all of us,” VanWorth-Rogers said it was “a very difficult decision for us” not to announce the threat, but that they “felt strongly” about not wanting to cause panic, hinder the investigation or unintentionally encourage copycat behavior.
Noting that “this situation has been very fluid,” VanWorth-Rogers shared a timeline of the threat's discovery and investigation, which included mention of a second threat discovered the day after the first.
That message was the “beginning of a countdown” to the threatened shooting on Oct. 10, she said.
Kessel provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse of law enforcement's response, noting that he was unable to share certain details due both to the ongoing investigation and to not wanting to reveal police tactics.
Libby Police Department called in additional resources from the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation and the FBI, he said, and stepped up security at all local schools and at homecoming activities.
Outside law enforcement helped determine that students were not in imminent danger, Kessel said.
Police believe they have identified the “very small and close” group of students responsible for the threat, but were still investigating, he said.
After Barringer invited questions, many parents shared their thoughts — many expressed in exasperated, frustrated or incredulous tones, and some met with applause.
“[You've] got a lot of pissed off parents because of a lack of communication,” one woman said. “A lack of information on parents' parts means they're going to fill in own holes. How can we involve parents concerns and input in the future?”
To this and similar questions Barringer reiterated their plan to evaluate their response to see what worked and what didn't, and to adjust accordingly.
“We do need to know how to communicate to you more effectively,” VanWorth-Rogers said.
Someone asked if parents would have been notified had the news not spread on Facebook. Barringer said they planned to let people know by noon Monday if the investigation was not resolved that morning.
After Kessel mentioned the need for a school resource officer, a man asked whether parents could volunteer to provide security at the school, a question many had raised on Facebook.
The issue with volunteers, Kessel said, is that the department requires a person with law enforcement training, “not just someone who's a good shot.”
Someone asked if the school district will press charges.
“Absolutely,” Barringer said.
Cathy Turner-Haskins, who attended the meeting with her husband and two daughters, both students at the school, said she thought “they took a lot more heat than they expected” but were given many good ideas.
The lack of communication was the main problem, she said.
“Sometimes [they must] keep things quiet, I get that,” she said. “But if they had only let us know [something].”