Karen Orcutt got the good news as she sat down with Orono school leaders and police on a recent morning — a possible school threat the night before was a false alarm.
But minutes later, relief quickly gave way to panic.
“Orono is not safe. Today at 12:00pm I will shoot up the school myself,” another threat posted on social media read.
In her 14 years leading the small suburban school district, the superintendent had never seen a school shooting threat. Now, she was facing two, just hours apart. Immediately, she put all five schools in a lockdown for the first time ever.
“You have to make quick decisions,” she said. “I don’t know there’s any way to overreact when you’re threatened.”
In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting that killed 17 kids and staff, Minnesota schools are confronting an unusually high surge in threats — many for the first time — putting communities from Minneapolis to Mankato and beyond on edge. In four weeks, Minnesota schools have reported at least 19 threats, spurring lockdowns, school closures and arrests of students. Even more schools reported rumored threats and hoaxes that were later ruled not credible.
Nationwide, an average of 70 threats and incidents have been reported each day since Parkland — up from the usual 10 threats and incidents, according to Educator’s School Safety Network. Former principal and teacher Amy Klinger founded the Ohio nonprofit and has tracked news reports since 2014. She said she expected a surge in threats after the Florida shooting, but not this many and for so long afterward.
“The uptick is way more than you think and it’s lasted,” Klinger said.
Out of more than 940 threats and incidents since the Parkland shooting, half of the threats were spread on social media. Even before Parkland, threats were already up this year by 12 percent from 2017.
“It will drop back down,” Klinger said. “But I don’t anticipate it going back to where it was” before Parkland.
The crisis response
Tucked along the shores of Lake Minnetonka, Orono rarely makes headlines.
The wealthy bedroom community of 7,800 people is among the nation’s most expensive real estate markets. It’s also extremely private, rarely attracting attention beyond controversies over local celebrities’ multimillion-dollar houses or whether residents should have to discuss home renovations on videotaped city meetings.
One week after the Florida shooting, the community was thrust into the public spotlight and Orcutt, a speech pathologist who rose to the top spot in the 2,800-student district in 2004, was in charge of navigating the crisis.
“They’re extremely high-pressure situations,” she said.
On a sunny and frigid morning, Orono Police Chief Correy Farniok met Orcutt and other school leaders at the district office. A student had posted a photo of a gun on social media and made a comment some perceived as a threat. When police contacted the student the night before, he said he was just advocating for Second Amendment rights. After briefing school leaders, Farnoik returned to his office across the street to write up a news release.
“Before we could hit send, we got notified of the second threat,” he said.
Barely 10 minutes later, an officer showed him the Twitter post. Given the specific time and target of Orono schools, Farniok recommended Orcutt put all the schools on the 120-acre campus on lockdown — the first potential threat of a school shooting in his 23-year career with the department, which also responds to Westonka Public Schools. A warning was sent out to the schools and parents were alerted.
Outside, snowplows and squad cars blocked roads. Inside, leaders from the district, FBI and six agencies converged while kids in the school huddled in locked classrooms or barricaded doors with cabinets and desks, texting anxious parents and eating chicken tenders and fruit.
For nearly six hours, they waited.
Authorities traced the post to inside the high school and scrambled to track down which student sent it and from where. Finally, just after 4 p.m., police found him. They arrested the teen inside a classroom; he was unarmed and no weapons were found on site.
Pat Pheifer/Star Tribune
An hour later, Orcutt and Farniok faced a throng of bright TV cameras. School and police leaders met to debrief. By 7:30 p.m., Orcutt headed home and typed out a message to staff, thanking them for their quick response.
‘No one is messing around’
At 11 p.m. more than 100 miles away in northern Minnesota, Superintendent Pat Rendle had seen coverage of Orono’s lockdown when his phone buzzed.
A screenshot of a Snapchat post by a Hill City School student warned of taking revenge on another student the next day. By midnight, Rendle decided that, for the first time in the school’s history, it would shut down the next day because of the threat.
“No one is messing around when it comes to this stuff,” he said.
The next morning, as Orcutt returned to school in Orono with extra police officers, church leaders and psychologists, Aitkin County authorities up north traced Hill City’s threat to two teen girls and arrested them.
The following day, school resumed for Hill City’s 300 students, also with extra police and a firetruck stationed out front. Rendle’s phone rang. This time it was a call from a principal in Woodbury, where officials had just investigated two school threats. So did southern Minnesota’s Austin School District that day while in Anoka County, St. Francis schools closed due to a verbal threat from a 17-year-old student, who was arrested.
“I don’t think there’s a person who can overreact to something like this,” Rendle said. “Social media has made the world really small; even though something happened in Florida, it might as well have happened here.”
On high alert
Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune
Nearly two weeks later, students rallied for gun control outside the State Capitol while inside, Orcutt, Orono’s superintendent, joined Gov. Mark Dayton as he announced a $21 million school safety plan.
“We’ve got great safe schools,” Orcutt said. “But we know there are situations across the nation ... threats are not OK.”
With communities on high alert, school leaders and police have the burden of deciding what’s a credible threat from rumors and hoaxes swirling out of control in the frenzy of social media.
In southern Minnesota last week, Olmsted County sheriff’s deputies showed up at a 15-year-old’s house after he posted on Snapchat: “one week from tomorrow,” prompting concern about violence planned at Byron’s high school. Turns out, he was just excited for the spring sports season.
And in central Minnesota, all nine buildings in Cambridge-Isanti schools closed Feb. 28 after a vague threat on Snapchat that turned out to be a false alarm. Superintendent Ray Queener said it was the first time in his nearly three-decade career he closed school due to a threat, but there wasn’t time to investigate it before classes started.
“What’s going on in the country, everyone is on heightened alert,” Queener said. “Canceling school is never easy. I will always err on the side of safety for kids.”