Area schools were on heightened alert last week as a pair of potential shooting threats, one in Dodge City and one in Greensburg, came just before the start of Christmas break.
Last Wednesday the Dodge City Police Department (DCPD) and officials from USD 443 increased security at Dodge City High School and the Dodge City Elementary School, rumored to be the location of a "hoax" shooting organized by students.
"We immediately investigated the threat," said Dodge City Chief of Police Craig Mellecker. "There were two officers assigned to investigate and they spent multiple hours and interviewed more than 20 students and faculty from the high school."
Eventually determined to be an unsubstantiated rumor, police were put on alert after the parent of a student reported hearing about it from her child.
Mellecker said his investigators determined the threat was purely "rumor, innuendo, assumption" and said the threat began as a misunderstood comment taken out of context. "It just keep going and going and turned into a really bad rumor," he said. "There was no specific threat made."
USD 443 released a statement Thursday assuring the community that the safety of students is a top priority and reminded residents about the comprehensive safety plans in place to help avoid tragedies.
"We take every rumor or concern very seriously and investigate them with the help of local law enforcement. None of the recent rumors some of you may have heard were ignored, but neither were they found to have any substance," the statement read. "Both law enforcement and school administrators are satisfied that the issues have been looked into fully and feel that having children in school, where they have the support of their classmates, teachers, and staff, is in their best interests."
Chief Mellecker said the response was "swift and immediate" and said his department takes every threat seriously. "Even if the threat was a hoax we'd have no way of knowing that, and someone could get seriously injured." said Mellecker, adding that the heightened awareness and concern in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting may have played a role in the claims.
On Thursday Kiowa County Sheriff Dept. officers were posted at all county schools as a precautionary measure after a county student received a somewhat cryptic and threatening text message.
The message read only "I was told there was going to be a shooting at school tomorrow" and gave no other specifics.
"It was not a direct threat," said Kiowa County Sheriff Kendall Lothman. "It was not a text that said, 'I'm going to come to school tomorrow and shoot a bunch of people.' It implied a possible threat, but it didn't say why or where."
Page 2 of 4 - Lothman dispatched three officers to Kiowa County Schools in Greensburg, a pair of officers to Haviland Grade School and a single officer to Barclay College Campus in Haviland. Lothman also said an officer was not designated to a single location and spent the day at multiple locations.
Initially it was thought the message had been sent randomly and from an unknown number, but a "distant" connection was discovered between the owner of the phone that sent the message and the Kiowa County student.
Lothman said he believed the relationship between the two people was "not immediate or frequent."
The text message originated from a phone located around the Fort Leonard Wood area, a Missouri military base about 90 minutes northeast of Springfield.
"We felt confident that the content of that text was not directed at our school, any school in Kiowa County or any school in the state of Kansas for that matter," said Lothman. "We believed it was isolated to that Missouri location. We also felt comfortable that the phone originating the text was still in Missouri. After contacting Missouri law enforcement we discovered that the authorities there already had an open investigation related to that text."
Lothman thought it was possible the text message had been sent to multiple phone numbers in the cell phone's contact list.
School administrators were briefed on Thursday evening.
"After we were done with our investigation I contacted all of the administrators and told them what was going on," said Lothman. "I felt confident that there was no direct threat to our school, but I just didn't want to take any chances. I wanted to put uniformed officers at all of the schools. They all agreed and thought it was a good idea. We developed a strategy and a plan. They all worked well with us. I felt like everyone was on top of the situation."
All of the county schools had a full day of classes, though Haviland school was scheduled to be dismissed early, at about 12:15 p.m. and most Barclay students had already left campus for Christmas break.
"Rest assured that if there were a more eminent danger we would not have kids come to school," wrote Haviland Superintendent Mike Couch in a statement on the school's website. "Beyond this, we want the public to know that our safety procedures will be reviewed and revised where needed prior to second semester. The plan now is to have each door locked except for the front door of the elementary school building."
The heightened security at the school in Greensburg also affected students and faculty at Skyline High School in neighboring Pratt County.
Administrators at USD 438 instituted an "exterior lock down" after a Skyline student alerted faculty about what was happening in Kiowa County.
Page 3 of 4 - The Skyline student had been in communication with a student at the Kiowa County Schools in Greensburg via text message and shared the information with a teacher.
"At no time was there anyone in danger to our school or any school facilities in the county, nor was there ever a threat to our school or any school in the county," wrote Skyline Superintendent Mike Sanders in a statement on the school's website. "We decided to lock the front door as a precaution. As a service, the Pratt County Sheriff's office sent a plain-clothes officer to be on site [Friday] to assist us."
Sanders explained that all exterior doors of the school, except for the front door, are typically locked during school hours.
School days at all of the affected facilities were without incident.
A tidal wave of arrests and shooting threats has swept across the country in the weeks following the Dec. 14 Newton, Conn. shooting tragedy that killed 26 students and faculty.
There were widespread reports of shooting-threat related arrests on Friday alone.
Law enforcement officials in Canyon City, Colo. arrested a 13-year-old student for allegedly sending threatening text messages students at his school.
Graniteville, S.C. police were also on high alert after rumors of a possible shooting spread throughout the school.
Local police questioned two high school students, one from Anchorage, Alaska and one from Burkburnett, Texas after both made school shooting threats on social media websites.
According to a report in the Times Record News a 17-year-old Texas high school student was arrested after a cryptic post equating a school shooting and the "end of the world" along with a photo of him shooting a shotgun appeared on his Facebook page.
The Alaska Dispatch reported that a 15-year-old student was suspended after making threats to other gamers while playing an on-line video game.
Communities across the country seem to be extremely sensitive to threats right now, especially when tragedies, like the shooting in Newtown, are still fresh.
"That has got to be on everybody's mind," said Sheriff Lothman. "With an incident of that magnitude people get wind of something or any kind of talk or even a mention of something like that and it gets everyone thinking 'what if?' No one thinks it could happen in our community, but 'what if it could?' It's really hit people and maybe put them more on guard."
As lawmakers discuss increases in school security nationwide, law enforcement officials are expected to look for ways to improve security measures on a local level.
"I've heard lots of discussion in the news about putting armed guards in schools and I definitely think some need it, but you can't make choices based on past experience," said Lothman. "I think talking about things, having plans and resources can help prevent things like that. The key to this is prevention and training the school staff. You can never have too much of that stuff."
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Abigail Wilson of the Dodge City Daily Globe contributed to this report.