SPOONER– At a community listening session held in the Spooner High School auditorium – a surprisingly lightly attended event – the public, the Spooner School Board, and the Spooner police listened to each other and exchanged ideas and opinions concerning the “unsafe situation” that took place at the school on the morning of Wednesday, May 9.
At the time, the threat at the school was not publicly defined, prompting speculation and questions on the handling of the situation.
The object of concern turned out to be a missing key, allowing entry to rooms inside the school, and alleged threats made by a student, on May 8, and the events of May 9.
Kevin Stranberg of Stranberg & Associates, Ashland, moderated the meeting. Stranberg has been hired to facilitate strategic planning for the district.
“People need to know why there are cop cars outside the school,” he said. “We know that parents are going to hear about it really quickly in this modern day of social media.”
David Aslyn, Spoonder Schools superintendent, spoke.
“The events at Spooner High School on May 9 are frightening for a lot of people,” said Aslyn. “Unfortunately incidents of school violence are on the rise across the country. It really strikes a nerve for everyone when there’s a concern of such an event taking place in our community.”
“We received a report of a missing key from a staff member’s key ring,” continued Spooner High School Principal Sarah Johnson. “I consulted with Dr. Aslyn to investigate that concern.”
There was concern not only for the missing key itself, but the possible replication of that key by others.
“The key would allow entrance to the internal doors of the building,” said Johnson.
The choir had given a concert on May 8, and choir members were interviewed. There were individual student interviews, surveillance, follow-up on reports, and referral to the Spooner Police Department.
A student reported a concern to Johnson related to the key, of an individual being present at the concert and connected with another individual who made concerning statements.
“Following investigation it was determined there was no threat,” reported Johnson, who did not and would not use the names of students.
On May 9, Dean of Students Brett Dejager interviewed the student alleged to have made threats.
“We interviewed him and kept him in the office until we concluded the investigation,” said Dejager. “The Spooner Police Department came to the conclusion there was n That was reported to Asylyn. Staff and students reported to the auditorium around 9:20 a.m. Staff gave their report and talked to the students.
Aslyn again spoke.
“There was a great deal of tension in the school due to the rumor,” he said. “It was a very difficult situation for everyone involved. Spooner High School was likely the most protected building in the city at that time, with members of the Spooner Police Department, Washburn County Sheriff’s Department, and Wisconsin State Patrol present here at school.
“By the time I arrived, Spooner Police and school staff had interviewed and searched the student who was alleged to have a threatening statement about school violence at Spooner High School.”
Aslyn said the student was in a controlled environment, away from other students.
A short presentation was held in the auditorium. Students were addressed by Aslyn, Dejager, and Spooner Police Chief Jerry Christman, telling them they were in no danger. The presentation was livestreamed to share information with the community. It was followed by a Sky Alert message to district families.
“We let families know that students would receive an excused absence for the day if they stayed home, or if they left school early,” reported Aslyn. “But we did not change normal procedure, where parents either pick children up or excuse them prior to the students being dismissed from the school.
“We received a lot of feedback from parents and families district-wide that we should have sent out a Sky Alert prior to let them know what was going on, and everything was safe prior to meeting with Spooner High School students and staff.
“Faced with the situation again, I’d make sure that Sky Alert went out to the families at the same time the presentation to students and staff took place.
“Another positive from the day was the hard work by so many people from the district and law enforcement, the sole focus of keeping the students and staff safe. Thankfully, that’s how the day ended, with everybody going home safely,” Aslyn said.
Christman stated, “We conducted the investigation pretty quickly. As mentioned, we found no credible threat. We haven’t had anything further after our investigation.”
A question was raised by a member of the public, who asked, “What about the key?”
“The missing key from the teacher’s ring is still unaccounted for,” reported Aslyn. “In addition to that, there are a number of the same keys that are unaccounted for that date back from the time that the building was opened.”
A member of the audience asked what the key opened.
“That key gives access to some of the classrooms in the school, so it’s not an exterior key,” said Johnson.
“Is there a reason a call did not go out immediately when Spooner police showed up?” asked a parent. “The first thing I heard about this was a text from my daughter at 8:10 a.m. I should have been alerted by school staff or somebody in power in the School District.”
Stranberg said that the incident showed that parents should be contacted quickly. Aslyn said the administration felt it was very important to put their energy into conducting the investigation, but if they had to do it again, information would have been sent to parents at the same time students were brought to the auditorium.
Said a parent, “It is safe to say that 95 percent of the kids in this school have cell phones? Did you think that nobody was going to say anything, nobody was going to send out a text, nobody was going to do anything? We as parents were left with rumors that the kids were talking about.
“Had we gotten something from the school saying, ‘We have something going on here, we are not sure what it is right now, we’ll get back to you as soon as we have more information for you.’ That could have shut this down immediately. Instead, you let the kids talk about it, we heard rumors from the kids, we have outside people calling the Washburn County Sheriff’s Department.”
Christman said that until the investigation was complete, “I don’t feel comfortable making just a broad statement. I don’t have the capability of doing a robo-call.”
Parents said they just did not want to hear it from the kids first. “How many kids are going to actually know what is going on? Zero!”
School board member Robert Hoellen said, “You are right, we need to communicate with parents pronto. When kids are texting, giving out information, it’s making it worse and we have nothing from the school. This is going to change … we are going to be communicating very rapidly with parents.”
“Any decision we make at administration level is always made with concern for the 354 students and staff,” said Johnson.
Concern was expressed that there is still a “key floating around” that opens classroom doors.
“I’m not trying to place blame, but it scares me,” said a parent. “A kid has made threats. People have heard these threats, enough to report it to the police. This kid needs help.”
“We do recognize there are keys out there,” said Business Manager Shannon Grindell. “It takes a lot of time to re-key the doors. Interior doors alone are going to be upwards of $10,000.”
“The decision had already been made,” said School Board President Karen Sorenson. “We are moving ahead to get this building re-keyed. It’s a priority.”
Parents expressed a concern about taking everybody into the auditorium.
“I felt like you putting all of the students in this room together – now we have captured fish. If someone wants to do something, you’ve got the whole building right here. And that scares me.”
Hoellen shared that view and said he had the same thought. His concern was not knowing if the threat was from “inside or possibly outside.”
Parents said that had they had information sooner, “a lot of people wouldn’t have been so stressed out.”
“The world is a lot different from when I was in school,” said a parent and former Spooner High School student.
“When I was in school we were still carrying hunting rifles in the back of our trucks,” added another parent.
“I’m very disturbed by the number of empty seats,” said another, gesturing to the auditorium.
School board member Erin Burch commented that some students do need help.
“It starts in kindergarten, all the way through 12th grade,” she said. “As a board member, I would really focus on mental health, the emotional health of our students.
“I want to know we are doing everything we can for students that are struggling with something that would potentially get them to a place where they would contemplate carrying out a violent act in our school,” Burch said.