About 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Minneapolis school officials activated a computer program that sent an urgent and ominous telephone message to parents of all 32,000 of its students.
It said that because of an unspecified threat, all Minneapolis schools would be locked down with students inside until the end of the school day.
Thus began an unsettling and extraordinary day in which the same technology that apparently enabled a miscreant in Australia to warn via the Internet that a Minneapolis school would be shot up also enabled the school district to notify legions of parents of what's believed to be the first citywide school lockdown in history. And late Wednesday, an update was sent out -- the lockdown would be extended through Thursday as a precautionary measure.
And though technology wasn't perfect -- some parents received only partial messages that heightened their worry -- the school day proceeded otherwise normally, and parents and public safety officials widely praised the district for how it performed under pressure, saying it shows that educators have come a long way in assessing and responding to threats in the post-Columbine era.
"The district did exactly what they should have done," said Sara Kleckner, a parent of students at Burroughs Community School and a member of the district's Parent Advisory Council. Kleckner said her two daughters came home "full of obliviousness" about what transpired, and Kleckner said that's the way it should be.
The Minneapolis threat was telephoned about 7:30 a.m. to the city's 311 information line. The caller said that someone had warned on a social networking site that about two hours later, "a male will be coming to a Minneapolis school, shoot up the school and then shoot himself," said Minneapolis police spokesman Jesse Garcia.
'Code Yellow' imposed
After assessing the threat, district officials imposed a "Code Yellow," ordering all outside doors to schools locked, and sending the automated message to parents. Between that first message and an afternoon update, the district's automatic system sent almost 153,000 individual phone calls to parents' home, work and cell phones in four different languages.
"A few years ago, we wouldn't have a good way of communicating to families," said district spokesman Stan Alleyne. "We'd send a backpack letter at the end of the day. People would hear about it on their own, and show up at the schools. This system allowed us to tell people."
By day's end, it was clear they'd made the right call, said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
"It's unnerving to have these threats," Kyte said, "but you also have to decide, if every threat that comes in means you close schools or send the kids home, you could see how quickly somebody can disrupt the education of thousands of kids day after day."
After school Wednesday, Eden Gartner picked up his kindergarten-age daughter and carried her across the street from Marcy Open School. The little girl told him that this day had been different from the rest.
There was a "code yellow," she said.
"But it was a practice," the 5-year-old quickly added. "What if it was a real one?"
A hoax suspected
St. Paul police Sgt. Paul Schnell said investigators in both cities established that the threats came from somewhere in Australia, and they believe the culprit is a teenager with no connection to the area.
Therefore, Schnell said, the threats were probably a hoax. The police departments have teamed with the FBI and Interpol to verify that the threat came from the Australian computer, and eliminate the possibility that it was used as a cover. No one has been arrested. An Internet Protocol (IP) address was used to track the source computer, which was responsible for the threats to both Minneapolis schools and Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul.
According to Kyte, schools have gotten better at analyzing the seriousness of threats -- looking at how specific they are, for one thing.
"If a kid says I'm going to shoot myself," he said, "that'd be of great concern, but it's not an imminent suicide. ... If a kid says I'm going to shoot myself, and I have my father's gun, and I have the bullets, and they're hiding in my car, [it's very likely] that there is going to be a suicide."
Officials of the state's School Safety Center assisted school officials and police investigators in both cities.
Threats to schools on social networking sites have become increasingly common, the center said. Within the past month, online threats against two suburban Twin Cities high schools have been posted.
Both turned out to be unfounded, and, according to director Mike Siitari, "very few, if any" documented cases of actual school violence have stemmed from rumors posted on social networking sites.
In Minneapolis, the schools did "a very impressive job," Siitari said. "... By staying in school, you reduce the chance that there will be copycats."
Parents' IDs checked
At Sheridan School and Marcy Open School, a pair of couples stopping by at the end of the day both commended the district for its handling of the threat. They reacted to the news, however, in different ways.
Fawzi Ahmed, 49, and his wife went to Sheridan to pick up their two children rather than let them ride the bus as usual.
"You cannot guarantee what will happen," Ahmed said. "This way, I can guarantee myself."
At Marcy, Brie Griffin and her husband, Courtney Griffin, dropped off some birthday treats for their child but saw no need to pull the first-grader from school a half-hour early.
"They asked for our IDs, though, which was new," Brie Griffin said.
They had no qualms about the terseness of the district's initial call to parents.
Said Courtney Griffin, "Sometimes I think too much information can lead to ..."
"Paranoia," Brie Griffin said.
Courtney Griffin, who'd also been at Marcy before news of the threat, said the afternoon visit confirmed that the school "was doing exactly what they said they would do."