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False alarm: Police investigate cause of active shooter report

Grand Forks Police continue to investigate how a student saying someone looked like a school shooter escalated into a false report of an active threat Monday at Red River High School.

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Law enforcement responded Monday night for a report of an active shooter at Red River High School in Grand Forks. The report was the result of a student making an "inappropriate comment" about an adult's appearance, but there was no threat to the school or anyone associated with it, police said. Grand Forks Herald / April Baumgarten

Grand Forks Police continue to investigate how a student saying someone looked like a school shooter escalated into a false report of an active threat Monday at Red River High School.

The investigation into the comments is ongoing and active, but the incident officers responded to Monday evening at 2211 17th Ave. S. likely won't result in criminal charges, Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said.

Grand Forks Public Schools has been working for several months on implementing procedures for crisis communications, district spokeswoman Tracy Jentz said. The plan could be in place by the end of the school year and would alert parents, staff and the public about emergencies unfolding at schools, she said.

"It is always my goal to get information to families and staff as quickly as possible," she said. "Also, studies show that people experience a physiological response during stress/a crisis. The emergency communications plan I'm working on is built with all of that in mind. It will be a step-by-step guide for an administrator to use during an event-a checklist of who to communicate with, draft scripts, step-by-step guide to using our communication options (email, voicemail, text.) ... The goal is for us to share complete and accurate information to our stakeholders as quickly as possible."

'Inappropriate comment'

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The incident that launched a 911 call reporting an active shooter at the Grand Forks school was the result of a student making an "inappropriate comment" about an adult, Zimmel said. He said Tuesday via email he didn't have the exact wording of the comment, but "the nature of the comment was along the lines of the appearance of the person looking like someone who could be a school shooter, or along those lines."

"It was derogatory in nature and not based upon any threat, overt or implied, or any observation that would substantiate any level of suspicion whatsoever," Zimmel said Tuesday.

The adult never heard the comment, but someone overheard the conversation, Zimmel said. The comment was passed along to others and changed slightly each time until a child told a parent there was an active shooter in the school, Zimmel said. Several students took shelter inside, according to a news release.

"Father rightly contacts law enforcement, we respond to the scene and enter a school that's full of people that nobody has any idea why we are there," Zimmel said. "Our response probably caused more disruption than anything."

Red River staff and others at the school didn't know what was happening until officers arrived, Jentz said. The school was briefly placed under lockdown, according to an email from Red River Principal Kristopher Arason.

The Grand Forks Police Department and County Sheriff's Office responded and found numerous people in the school for various functions, according to the release. What they didn't find was a reason to believe there was an active threat, Zimmel said.

"There was no weapon that was observed," he said. "There was no weapon that was threatened with. There were no threats made whatsoever to any person."

No one was injured and the incident, Zimmel said. Anyone with information should call (701) 787-8000. Residents also can submit a tip to the Police Department's Facebook page, at grandforksgov.com/government/police or via the Tip411 app.

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Alerting parents

The Police Department sent a message via social media alerting the public to the situation about an hour after the 911 call came in. The post was meant to "stem the tide of the rumor mill," Zimmel said Tuesday.

"Between the nature of calls and texts, and the obvious presence of patrol vehicles around a school, we needed to put the rumors to rest as quickly as possible," he said. "This was one way to put an initial message out there, with more details to follow via traditional media outlets."

Arason sent an email regarding the incident to parents and guardians more than two hours after police responded.

"While not credible, we wanted to make you aware of the situation and let you know it is safe to send your child to school tomorrow (Tuesday)," the email said. "All Grand Forks Public Schools staff, students, families and community members are encouraged to report anything they see, hear, or are made aware of that may impact a school. If you see or hear something, say something."

Red River and school district administration did not know about the 911 call until law enforcement entered the school, Jentz said Tuesday via email. Its communication vendor, Blackboard, also was experiencing email problems Monday and Tuesday, she said, adding some emails took as long as 90 minutes to deliver.

School policy tells parents each school has an emergency management plan and procedures laid out in the district's crisis manual in place in the event of a crisis. School handbooks tell parents to listen to the media for emergency information and asks them not to contact the school so it can keep lines available for emergency communication.

The elementary student handbook notes an automated calling system that parents can refer to, but student handbooks do not say how soon parents will be alerted to emergency situations.

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Many school systems do not have a formalized process for crisis communication, Jentz said of her networking with communication colleagues at schools around the U.S. and Canada. She said each situation that unfolds at a Grand Forks school is different and varies in how long it takes to share information.

The district has made several changes in communicating with the public, Jentz noted. It stopped using Channel 15 and instead uses YouTube to post School Board meeting videos. It also implemented a smartphone app.

Students should be aware of what they say so others don't take it out of context, Zimmel said, but the Police Department also doesn't want to discourage residents from contacting dispatch if they believe there is an active threat. Officers would rather err on the side of caution and ensure the safety of students and everyone in school buildings, he said.

"That's our job, so we want to be able to do that" Zimmel said. "We don't want people to be hesitant to call. We also don't want this much disruption that's not based on anything."

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