After two students were emergency expelled last week from Mountlake Terrace High School due to two different potentially threatening situations, parents and community members were shaken up. The school responded by holding a community forum on Monday night to discuss concerns and the school’s responses with local families.
About 50 parents and students sat in the theater at Mountlake Terrace High School to listen to school and district administrators, as well as Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Greg Wilson and Asst. Chief Pete Caw.
Principal Greg Schwab was the first to take the microphone, saying he wanted to first discuss the two incidents and then share his thoughts moving forward to keep Mountlake Terrace a safe place.
First, he shared what happened on Wednesday, Jan. 4, when a student posted a photo of bullets on a social media website with the caption “be prepared.”
“I wasn’t quite sure what to think about it,” Schwab said. “There was enough concern that I called 911. Within the span of about 10 minutes, my inbox exploded and my phone began to ring.”
Phones continued to ring at the school’s office, Schwab said, even after officers with the Brier Police Department had contacted the student and determined the posting wasn’t intended as a threat.
“I was a little caught off-guard by the level of concern,” Schwab said.
Brier police officers told the district that the student had found the bullets inside a used truck his father had just purchased. He intended the post to be a reference to hunting.
However, during the investigation, it became clear that a different student who saw the post interpreted it another way. That second student took a screenshot of the first post and added the text “watch out Terrace kids.”
After viewing the edited version, Schwab said it became clear why there was such a strong response from parents.
“What people were reacting to wasn’t this (the original post). It was that (post with added text,” Schwab said.
Despite the large response from the community, Schwab said it was helpful that parents and students reported the post quickly to the school and the authorities.
“What is not helpful is what I showed you earlier,” Schwab said, referring to the social media posting with added text. “Things that caused more fear than there really needed to be. What’s helpful is reporting.”
Reporting is exactly how the school was able to handle a delicate situation two days later, Asst. Principal Dan Falk said.
A student came to Falk’s office in the middle of the school day to let him know that a different student had brought either a gun or a pellet gun to school and was looking for a place to hide it. Falk quickly got in touch with a teacher who could see the student with the weapon. That teacher kept watch over the student while police officers responded to campus.
Less than 10 minutes after the tipster initially made the report, the student was in police custody. A pellet gun was found in his backpack. He was arrested and removed from the building.
“We learned it was never a threat to Mountlake Terrace High School,” Falk said.
The students involved in both incidents were emergency expelled. Their status with the school is under review. The student who brought a pellet gun to school may also face legal charges.
The student or students who altered the social media posting from Wednesday’s event may also face repercussions, though exactly what they would be or who originally altered the posting has not yet been determined.
A complaint Schwab received about the school’s handling of the incident was a lack of communication to parents.
“Parents felt like they didn’t have enough information at the time to determine whether to send their student to school,” Schwab said. “That’s the challenge we run into. One, we’re competing with social media, and two, we need to make sure we are being accurate and that unfortunately takes a little more time.”
School District Spokeswoman Debbie Jakala said the district is currently working to consolidate and modernize its communication system, which may help in situations like this.
Police Chief Greg Wilson emphasized the need to focus on facts instead of fear.
“I believe that we live in a society of fear and consumption, and we love to instill fear,” Wilson said. “Think about ‘Y2K.’ Do you remember the fear that that put into our society, that when the clock struck midnight, all of our computer systems would crash overnight? We have to make sure we don’t let social media ruin our lives. Focus on the facts at hand.”
Wilson also said the city’s Police Department has a plan in place if an emergency event were to happen at Mountlake Terrace High School.
School officials stressed to parents that the best thing to do is report any suspicious activity to either the school, the district or the police.
“Imagine if the student on Friday had shared the situation on social media what the school would have looked like,” Jakala said. “Instead of posting it on social media, tell your parents, call 911, tell a school official.”
School and police officials also asked parents to talk to their kids about responsible social media use.
–Story and photo by Natalie Covate