By Bethany Helwig
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Questions of safety and discipline


September 26, 2019

Bethany Helwig

It was anything but a normal meeting of the Willow River School Board on September 17. A number of parents attended and the board listened in a somber mood as two parents gave heart-wrenching, tearful speeches about threats made to their children. Threats of violence with weapons had been made via social media which the school was later made aware of. The nature of the threats were both graphic and specific. Pine County authorities were notified and became involved. A student was temporarily suspended.

On the school's Facebook page, a message was put out by Superintendent Bill Peel stating, "Willow River Area School became aware of a situation concerning communications on social media. Law enforcement was immediately contacted and an investigation was initiated. The situation has been resolved. The safety and security of our students is our school's first priority."

The post was met with comments by parents confused and wanting more details about what had happened, concerned about their own children.

One of the parents at the meeting explained that the suspended student had been wandering the hallways during the suspension while his child, who had been threatened, was in school.

"I have huge problems with that," he said. "Student safety should be at the top of the concerns here for everybody involved. Bullies and terroristic threats should not be tolerated in Willow River."

Another parent had trouble getting through what he wanted to say to the board. "As you can tell we're pretty ... emotional. This is not a funny joke. It should not be taken lightly.

"How was this kid allowed on school grounds a day or two later? I walked into the school Thursday to talk to the principal, superintendent, and I walked right in. How? Shouldn't someone be guarding these doors, especially after a major threat like this?"

Board Chair David Prachar addressed the concerns at the end of the meeting. "To assure you, the board is now aware of what the circumstances were last week. Our number one priority is safety. What we do is we establish policy, and we turn that over to our administration to enforce those policies. We certainly understand and appreciate where all you folks are coming from as far as parents involved and concerned about safety. It is our highest priority. We will continue to work towards doing the best we can across the board. But you do have to realize there are times we are bound by law on what we can do, what we can't do, what we can say, and what we can't say, and that's just the way it is in the world today."

It's common knowledge that violence in schools has been more prevalent than ever, with deadly shootings, bomb threats, and students threatening harm to each other over the internet.

So how are our schools confronting and dealing with these threats?

Minnesota law orders schools to develop and implement policies regarding discipline for students as well as crisis management plans and violence prevention. The Department of Education provides model policies for schools that they can adopt or revise as they see fit. State statute dictates certain provisions that must be included in policies and outlines specific procedures to be followed concerning due process hearings to protect student rights. However, it is ultimately up to the schools to decide on disciplinary measures. That includes suspension and expulsion.

"Suspending students is not a frequent form of punishment and the district would prefer not to suspend students," said Superintendent Peel of Willow River's practices. "We utilize New Directions, which is an alternative to a suspension program located in Hinckley for grades 6 - 12. I have no history of Willow River expelling a student."

As stated in Willow River's Student Discipline Policy (#506), "[t]he specific form of discipline chosen in a particular case is solely within the discretion of the school district. At a minimum, violation of school district rules, regulations, policies, or procedures will result in discussion of the violation and a verbal warning. The school district shall, however, impose more severe disciplinary sanctions for any violation, including exclusion or expulsion, if warranted by the student's misconduct, as determined by the school district."

According to Superintendent Peel, that decision is made by the principals for their schools. "The superintendent can either support the principal or make adjustments." However, expulsions are imposed by the school board. "We are always communicating with each other and we rely on law enforcement and our attorney when necessary."

While it was said Pine County authorities are involved with this particular incident, any investigation and outcome would be considered confidential since the matter involves juveniles. Any charging decisions or juvenile delinquency filing would ultimately rest with the Pine County Attorney.

In response to today's troubling times, a number of schools now have school resource officers (SRO) stationed in school. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "SROs are sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools." A 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 42 percent of public schools had at least one SRO present at least one day a week during the 2015-2016 academic year.

As for our local schools, Willow River does not have an SRO but there is a Pine County deputy that frequents the school. Barnum has a similar situation with a Carlton County deputy that visits the school.

Rick Kaufman, a paramedic that was one of the first on scene at the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, has been working on keeping kids safe in school since that time. Kaufman said in an interview with MPR, "My epiphany a number of years ago was we've got to stop reacting and start working on the front end of these things. How do we prevent, how do we intervene, how do we mitigate these kinds of things from happening?"

In response to active shootings that occurred at schools in 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a threat assessment model for schools as well as a K-12 school security guide. One of the key considerations from Homeland Security was that "[f]aculty and staff should take all incoming reports seriously, and assess any information regarding concerning behavior or statements."

Schools in Minnesota have revamped their security in a number of ways. Enhancements to the physical structure of schools is a common method, such as adding cameras, improved locks, and automatic doors connected to an emergency system.

Other schools have made use of their personnel to facilitate better security. The St. Paul Public Schools emailed parents last year after a school shooting in Florida that "[s]chool staff and onsite security personnel monitor school entrances. Visitors are required to explain their presence in our buildings and the reason for their visit. School staff are trained to challenge any unfamiliar person they encounter in a building and to report unusual activity immediately. Staff are also trained to lock down and secure their school in case of an internal or external threat."

One of the parents at the board meeting did suggest having a greeter at the doors to welcome kids to the school but also keep watch. "Where I went to school, and my youngest kid goes, the principal was there in the morning at all times, and the doors were locked in the evening. Can we do something like this? And the kids like that. They say good morning to them, but then they're also watching for things."

Shortly after this incident, the Sandy Hook Promise released a powerful PSA about school violence that serves as a reminder of the reality we live in today (which can be viewed at, and that all threats should be treated seriously.


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