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Threat causes 509-J to close schools early

Rumors on Facebook and Twitter
School District 509-J closed schools a day early, on Friday, Dec. 21, due to local rumors circulating on Facebook and Twitter, in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
   Friday was to be the last day before Christmas break, and closing early also meant that numerous 509-J school concerts and parties were canceled.
   The Culver School District remained open, but Superintendent Stefanie Garber said attendance was down, with about one-third of the students gone.
   "I got a million phone calls this morning from parents because (media outlets) said Jefferson County schools were closed today," Garber said, indicating that radio reports didn't distinguish between the 509-J and Culver school districts, which are both in Jefferson County.
   Garber said the low attendance was due to "a mixture of those who believed the world was going to end on Dec. 21, those who were unclear about threats of violence on Facebook, the radio (misinformation), and people who had travel plans."
   As for the rumors, Garber said, "Law enforcement has been here each and every day investigating Facebook posts and it was just kids joking around who were not mature enough to understand how fragile things are now."
   District 509-J Superintendent Rick Molitor said the school closure was not over any safety issue.
   "People were saying they heard a kid said violence was going to happen and the rumors just exploded," he said, adding staff spent an entire day with parents who were concerned about the rumors.
   "Any lead and information we received, we followed up on, and law enforcement followed up," Molitor said.
   "It was a perfect storm of creating a sense of fear among people, and it was happening all across the nation," he said, referring to the Mayan calendar's supposed end of the world, the school shootings, and then the Facebook rumors.
   Concerned parents had already begun pulling their children out of school before Friday, and Molitor called other area school districts and heard some only had 50 percent attendance.
   "With that low of attendance, it's not a good educational day," he said, noting the decision was made to close school Friday.
   Administrators from 509-J met with the districtwide safety committee, including representatives from Warm Springs, the sheriff's office, police department, fire department and parents.
   "We weighed the pros and cons of what was going on in the schools and felt since the holiday break was coming up, it would be a good time to do a safety assessment of the buildings," he said.
   Friday morning was spent reviewing all of 509-J's safety plans, and looking at what short- and long-term fixes could be done over the Christmas break.
   "For example, we can make sure there are as few public access points as possible, and that all visitors check in at the office," he said.
   The school bond measure that was recently passed includes funding for a cardlock system and other safety measures.
   "We're fortunate that we are going to be able to have a cardlock system when that part of the bond is completed, and will get it in the buildings as soon as possible," Molitor said.
   Students will have a two-hour late start when they return Jan. 7. "Because of the upgrades, we will need those two hours to talk to staff and review safety plans and procedures," Monitor explained.
   Assistant Police Chief Tanner Stanfill said they had followed up on hundreds of Facebook and Twitter postings.
   "It started by somebody who said `I heard someone was going to come to school with a gun' and spread like fire in dry grass," he said.
   The stories got embellished as they were passed down the line. Another rumor claimed two people had been arrested with guns at a school, he noted.
   "Everything we found was the same old rumor mill. People were upset and fearful over the recent tragedy and posting their feelings online. Absolutely noting was substantiated," Stanfill said.
   "As of (Thursday), over 18 schools across the state were dealing with the same thing. Chasing rumors and nothing substantiated," he said.
   While they were investigating, Stanfill said Madras police provided additional staffing all week at the schools and Kids Club as a precautionary measure.
   "Hopefully, people will settle down. We just suffered a national tragedy, so there's some fear out there," he observed.