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School evacuations continue

If local middle school students thought the recent string of bomb scares was funny, they learned last week it's a much more serious matter than they realized.

The New Richmond School Board voted to suspend two sixth grade girls for working together on the school's second bomb scare note.

The pair will not be allowed back into the district until after their eighth grade year, according to Superintendent Craig Hitchens.

"It was a huge decision for the School Board to make," he said. "The board saw that it was not just an opportunity to make an example of the students, but they also saw it as a serious act that needed to be handled appropriately."

Principal Mike Ballard said the action was necessary to show all students that the administration is not taking the matter lightly.

"It shows we won't tolerate that kind of behavior," he said.

A third student has been identified as the alleged author of a fourth bomb threat, which occurred March 29. The student was turned over to juvenile authorities and faces an eventual expulsion hearing before the School Board.

Several suspects have been identified in the remaining bomb scare incidents, although no one else has been arrested or turned over to juvenile authorities.

"I don't think we've arrested all the kids who may have been involved," Hitchens said.

Police believe they are close to solving the remaining cases and have assigned two officers to work on the investigation.

The district has also instituted tough new regulations in an attempt to squash the escalating bomb scare situation.

As of last Thursday, everyone entering the school was required to use the front entrance. A police officer has been assigned to patrol the school during normal school hours.

School officials have also locked all but one set of bathrooms, and students using the restrooms are required to sign in with a bathroom monitor posted outside the facilities.

The school has also restricted access in hallways and more adults are monitoring the halls during class periods.

No backpacks or duffel bags will be allowed in the school, although the use of clear plastic bags is encouraged. Students were also told they could be searched at any time.

Ballard said the added restrictions would be in effect for the foreseeable future.

He also noted that all end-of-the-semester activities and field trips had been cancelled in order to make up the 10 hours of lost instructional time due to the threats.

Ballard said he would be meeting with staff members to work out a plan to re-instate the reward trips, but only if the bomb threats end.

The new measures didn't stop additional bomb threats from occurring Friday and Monday morning.

Students were not evacuated during the Friday incident, as officials felt the note writer was contained in a single classroom and the safety of students was not jeopardized, according to Superintendent Craig Hitchens.

Students were evacuated to the YMCA just before noon Monday after a bomb threat was found in a bathroom.

Police Chief Mark Samelstad was preparing to make a presentation to Middle School students about the seriousness of bomb threats Monday as the bomb threat note was found. He spoke to students Tuesday instead.

Hitchens said the latest bomb threat was disconcerting given the extraordinary steps the district has taken to curb the problem. Officials have a few potential suspects identified.

The bomb scare issue also spilled over to East Elementary last week, although the discovery of a note on a bathroom stall came after school was out.

"We're not convinced it was an elementary student who did it," Hitchens said. Principal Steve Wojan and Hitchens talked to the East Elementary students, urging them to keep their eyes open for any suspicious activity.

The School Board conducted a parent meeting Monday night to outline the measures taken to ensure the safety of students. The Little Theater was packed with upwards of 300 people.

School Board chairperson Judy Remington called the bomb threat situation a matter of "grave concern" for the district.

Samelstad and Ballard each provided the crowd with specifics about the investigation into the threats, and then fielded questions from the audience.

"Everyone is just really tired and frustrated by the whole situation," Ballard said. "It's an emotional issue for all of us. Everyone really wants it to stop.

"The whole culture of the school ends up being negatively affected," he added.

Despite the frustration, Ballard said teachers have "maintained a positive outlook."

Ballard said the vast majority of parents have been positive and supportive of the school's attempts to stop the threats. "That's been refreshing," he said.

He added, however, a number of parents have been very upset by the entire situation.

Tempers flared Wednesday when word spread throughout the community of Wednesday's bomb threat. A number of irate parents arrived at school looking for their kids and questioning school officials.

"We went from a controlled situation to almost total chaos because information was leaked," Samelstad said.

Samelstad said the police and school officials are trying to provide as much information as possible without jeopardizing the ongoing criminal investigation.

"I firmly believe everything that can be done to protect the students is being done," he said. "I don't know what else we can do to make the school safe, without locking the whole place down, installing metal detectors and hiring armed guards."

Samelstad said the Middle School staff has followed its crisis plan in a professional and sincere way.

"I have nothing but high praise for the manner in which they have handled things these past three weeks," he told parents.

"These bomb threats are the result of a very small handful of kids at the Middle School. Ninety-eight percent of the kids at the Middle School are great kids."

Ballard said the bomb threats appear to be coming from different kids, and those suspects identified do not belong to just one clique, as some have suggested.

"It has been random. It's not the same group of kids," he said.

To keep the lines of communication open with students, Ballard said school counselors and teachers are talking with kids who are having a tough time dealing with the bomb threat scare. They are also encouraging students to provide any information that may lead to a solution to the case.

The New Richmond police department has assigned its detective to help coordinate the investigation into continued bomb threats at New Richmond Middle School.

The police were following up on several leads, including one report that a student had talked openly about writing another bomb scare note.

"The department has made these investigations a priority," Samelstad said.

Samelstad said the police are committed to stopping the bomb scare pattern.

"The police department and school officials are taking these threats very seriously," he said in a press release. "It is unfortunate that, because of a very few individuals, the entire school population is effected by these acts."

During the question portion of the meeting, parents expressed support and frustration with the problem.

Some volunteered to help in any way possible to ensure that kids are safe.

Others urged Middle School parents to do their part by talking with kids.

"This is our issue as a community," said parent Ernie Shores. "We need to make sure we're communicating with our children."

Another parent suggested the district contract with an outside consultant that has expertise in handling bomb threat problems.

Providing a different perspective to the controversy, school board member Lester Jones said he talked with one student who authored a bomb threat. The student originally saw the prank as a way to get out of school and play in the snow.

"They didn't know it was as big a deal as it is," Jones said. "This is a life-changing event."

As of Monday, nine separate bomb scares have kept the district in crisis mode.

The string of bomb threat incidents stretch back to Feb. 22, when school officials found a bomb reference scratched on a wall in a stairwell. Officials were unable to tell how long the note was on the wall, or if it was intended to be a bomb threat, but as a precaution they evacuated the building.

The first bonafide threat occurred March 15. Two female suspects have been referred to juvenile authorities for possible charges and penalties.

A second bomb scare occurred two days later. While several suspects were identified following that threat, no individual had been taken into custody.

A third bomb scare was reported March 23, but no suspects have been taken into custody yet.

Two bomb threats were reported last week -- one on March 29 and another March 30.

One student was turned over to juvenile authorities after police investigated the March 29 scare. No suspects had been identified in the March 30 incident.

The most recent bomb threats came Friday and Monday in the Middle School. A East Elementary teacher found a bomb reference Friday after hours.

Most of the time, students were evacuated to the nearby YMCA. Police, fire and school officials did a complete sweep of the building and found no explosive devices.

The investigation continues in the bomb threat matter, Hitchens said, and officials hope to identify all the culprits. School officials and police hope information provided by fellow students will help close the cases.

"Some of the best leads we've had have come from students," Hitchens said. "Some students are fed up with it. The threats have disrupted so many lives."

The police department is asking for the public's help in solving the rash of bomb scares. Samelstad said anyone with information on the cases is urged to call 246-6667.

Samelstad said the school and fire department have tallied more than $43,000 in additional costs due to the bomb threats. He said officials will be asking the county district attorney to seek restitution from students who are convicted of a bomb threat.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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