School board member: Parents ‘frustrated’ by frequency of recent school threats, district’s communication methods

Students enter Free State High School in this file photo from Jan. 15, 2009.

Schools across America have seen increased numbers of threats since February’s deadly shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Lawrence is no exception, and one school in particular seems particularly hard hit.

On Monday, police arrested a student at Free State High School after a gun was allegedly found in the student’s backpack. No one was hurt in the incident, which itself followed two separate occasions where police were called to Free State to investigate a shooting threat and a later-debunked rumor that a gun had been brought to school.

School board vice president Jessica Beeson said she understands the frustration of parents who have reached out to her in the wake of Monday’s arrest.

“Of course I’m concerned, just like any parent is concerned,” Beeson said. “Thinking about these situations happening across our country and being worried they could happen in our own backyard to our children or our children’s friends — that’s concerning. There’s no getting around that.”

Mainly, she said, parents have been asking her for additional information on the incident, and also “expressing their frustration” about the frequency of incidents at Free State over the last few months.

Another big concern to emerge from Beeson’s recent interactions with parents is the perception, she said, that perhaps the district isn’t working fast enough to inform families of incidents after they’ve occurred. During incidents like Monday’s, misinformation can quickly spread across social media and in texts between parents and students before the district has time to verify facts and notify everyone, Beeson said.

“That’s the challenge — making sure we have the accurate information before we start messaging families and the community en masse,” Beeson said. “Anybody can post anything to Facebook and start talking about it right away … I think there’s definitely room for improvement there.”

Less than two weeks ago, on March 28, police and district officials investigated a report from a student who overheard others talking about someone “possibly having a gun at school,” but officials said that case was determined to be a rumor.

On Feb. 19, a student at Free State told school staff that a fellow student made an “indirect threat” on Snapchat about killing people. The principal described the post as “threatening a school shooting.”

That investigation led to a felony charge of criminal threat against a boy who was a Free State student at that time. He was charged and arrested in late March, and ordered by a judge at that time to remain in juvenile custody.

Beeson said there are multiple safety and security measures being discussed on the school board, with the district and Lawrence Police Department “working very closely” together. Some of the ideas are already being implemented, she said, including hiring additional security at Lawrence High School, reminding students and staff not to “prop doors open” during the school day, and repairing any malfunctioning internal classroom locks.

School board members are also exploring different methods of communication “both internally in the buildings and with parents” when incidents arise, Beeson said, with the goal of preventing misinformation.

When asked how the district balances student privacy concerns with a parent’s right to know, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle shared the following statement via email:

“We have a responsibility to do both — protect student privacy rights and inform parents of information related to safety issues,” Boyle said, adding that parents and the public had been informed of the Free State incident on the day it occurred.

School board president Shannon Kimball stressed communication in an emailed statement to the Journal-World Monday in response to a voice message left by a Journal-World reporter trying to reach Kimball that afternoon.

“Safety and security are absolutely critical issues of concern for our board. I am thankful for the student who reported this issue so staff and police could immediately investigate and take appropriate action,” Kimball said. “I want to encourage students, staff, and parents to continue to report anything that concerns them. Safety requires a community effort and open communication is key.”

Later, after Monday’s school board meeting, Kimball clarified that federal privacy law (specifically, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) prohibits the district from discussing disciplinary matters of individual students. That means the district won’t reveal whether the Free State student who brought a gun to school has been suspended or expelled — even if the district were to keep the student anonymous.

“At the point that we do that, that student becomes identifiable — because everybody knows who the student is that showed up on such and such day,” Kimball said. “So we have to be real careful about basically identifying the student by providing information that allows people to identify them.”

Kimball said Monday’s incident was an “example” of the district’s crisis procedures’ effectiveness. The situation was addressed “before anything happened,” she said, and no one was hurt. She and others at the meeting expressed gratitude to the student who reported their concerns to staff Monday.

“We need the support of our community in that communication,” Kimball said. “If you see something, say something.”

— Reporter Sara Shepherd contributed to this story.