Six Alberta schools turned to crisis mode this week after a series of violent threats, including one case in which a student was arrested at home with what police called a high-powered rifle.
The threats, investigated Thursday and Friday, came one week after the massacre at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Conn. Officials across Alberta say they're now on alert for any threat, however credible.
The most serious case was in Ponoka, Alta., about an hour south of Edmonton. Ponoka Composite High School was locked down Friday after what the school board called "an alleged threat of violence" against the high school. A 17-year-old male student at the school was arrested soon after at his home, where police also say they found guns, including what they called simply a "high-powered" rifle.
The teen, who can't be identified under youth justice laws, faces charges of uttering threats, unsafe storage of a firearm and possession of weapons dangerous to the public peace. He's due in court Dec. 28. RCMP refused to discuss the case, and it's unclear what the threat was.
Students were locked down at the Ponoka school before being sent home, calling their parents to tell them what happened.
"He just phoned me at 11 and said, 'Mom, the school's had some kind of threat and they're sending buses,' " said Lorrie Jess, a local business owner and trustee whose son attends the Ponoka school. "I don't know what to make of it."
The five other cases have proven to be false alarms, with no charges laid. They included a high school in the small city of Medicine Hat, two schools in the town of Devon and two in the town of Rocky Mountain House, with officials across the province saying the Sandy Hook shootings have everyone erring on the side of caution.
"There is certainly no doubt that Sandy Hook moved the line from where it was. There's no doubt about that at all," said Superintendent Brian Celli of Wild Rose Public Schools, which includes one of the two Rocky Mountain House schools – one public, one Catholic, both under the same roof and closed Friday as a precaution.
In that case, a threat was reported to police Thursday and later found to have been "construed over the course of a couple days," police said. Officers found "no direct threat to cause harm to any student, teacher or towards the school."
In Devon, comments made on Facebook by a student talking about "a possible act of violence" led police to notify the student's current and former schools, officials said. Police found "no indication that this person was to carry out the threat." The current school, Riverview Middle School, decided to stay open; the former school, Holy Spirit Catholic, closed Friday and postponed its Thursday evening holiday concert. Riverview gave parents as much information as it could, Black Gold Regional Schools district principal Norm Dargis said. "I don't think we're doing anybody any service by keeping things in our hat," he said.
Medicine Hat's Crescent Heights High School was closed Friday as a "precautionary measure," after a threat later "defined as a low risk to students and staff," Superintendent Grant Henderson said in a letter to parents.
Alberta's Education Minister was watching the situations, with a spokeswoman backing schools' plans to shut the doors if safety is remotely in doubt. "In an effort for kids' safety, we always want to make sure they err on the side of caution," spokeswoman Kim Capstick said.
The province's schools are now on a two-week holiday break, with some set to re-evaluate lock-down procedures. "I mean, are these hoaxes or what? It's going to be a good time for schools to revisit their lock-down procedures, and a good chance to talk to parents and reassure them about the procedures," Alberta School Boards Association president Jacquie Hansen said.
In Rocky Mountain House, Mr. Celli's board plans to do just that.
"I think one of the conversations we're all going to have is: 'What is this going to look like going forward?' " he said. "I believe if most of us were pushed [for a prediction when the threat was first made], would we have believed something would actually happen? Probably not, but folks in Sandy Hook might not have either."