When to alert, when not to spread panic?

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2014 - 1:58 PM

A recent security incident raised some hackles, and some questions, with no easy answers.

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Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight during a talk about guns at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church as part of a community forum series.

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ, Star Tribune

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Christen Steidl thinks it took way too long to hear about the creepy-looking guy hanging out near the school.

“I would have wanted to know at the end of the school day,” said the Oak Hills Elementary parent, echoing the lament of dozens of others on the Lakeville school’s Facebook page.

But the district itself is more cautious.

“The last thing we want to do as a district is to have parents feel like their kids are unsafe at school,” said Linda Swanson, Lakeville’s spokeswoman. “At the same time, we don’t want to alarm them without good cause.”

A recent sequence of events involving a self-appointed tester of the district’s security arrangements has raised delicate questions about how schools should react in an ambiguous situation, well short of a full-blown crisis such as a shooting.

With cellphones allowing for constant interaction between parents and kids and school violence often in the news, school communication has entered a new era, one in which parents expect to know immediately about everything that happens at school.

But experts say it has to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“How a district chooses to [communicate about crises] is as varied as there are school districts,” said Scott Knight, chief of Chaska’s Police Department.

While some districts err on the side of caution and communicate frequently, others try to balance parents’ desire to know with providing too much information.

‘Security test’

The debate stems from an incident in the parking lot of Lakeville North High School. On May 22, Michael Adrian, armed with knives, an arrow, a slingshot and a rock, appeared on a skateboard in the school parking lot.

Two teachers approached and called police. Adrian said that he was glad the teachers showed up because he was trying to test school security. Police arrested him nearby for possessing weapons on school property, and the school issued a no-trespassing order.

A week and a half later, Adrian appeared near Oak Hills Elementary, but didn’t venture on school grounds.

Though staff received a picture and e-mail about Adrian the day of the incident and again on June 2, parents didn’t receive an e-mail about him until June 5, the last day of school.

Swanson said there were several reasons the district didn’t communicate with parents until late in the game.

The incident happened outside of a school building and “students were never affected.” Police didn’t initially deem Adrian a threat and were able to arrest him soon after they arrived.

There were many things the public doesn’t know about the situation, she said.

“So in some situations, it’s very unsatisfying to tell people a little bit and not be able to tell them everything,” she said. The district always has students’ safety in mind and “we know a real, real threat when we see it,” she said.

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