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School district admits communication shortfalls following Castlegar school shooting threat

Alleged threats of violence were made against Stanley Humphries Secondary School
Alleged threats of violence were made against Stanley Humphries Secondary School on April 16. Photo: John Boivin

Kootenay-Columbia School District 20 is acknowledging that public communications related to last week’s shooting threats at Castlegar’s high school could have been better.

“We are aware that something didn’t meet the mark for our community on how it was communicated,” SD20 superintendent Katherine Shearer told Castlegar News in an April 21 interview. “We need to look at that and figure it out so we can provide better communication in the future.

Shearer said going over the communications and every other aspect of the Violent Threat Risk Assessment (VRTA) protocol that was enacted after a student allegedly made violent threats linked to Stanley Humphries Secondary School (SHSS) will be taking place as part of the debrief that the district does after any VTRA incident.

The incident began April 16 when a report was made to the district and RCMP that online threats had been made by a student of SHSS.

Police and school officials began looking into the incident that day.

The first communication that came from SD20 was in the form of an email to parents of SHSS students from the school’s principal around 7 a.m. the next morning on April 17.

The email referenced “worrisome online behaviour involving Stanley Humphries students circulating on social media.”

It stated: “We are working with the RCMP and district office. We want to assure you we are taking this behaviour very seriously. In working with the RCMP, we want to inform you that Stanley Humphries will be open today.”

A second email was sent out around 10:30 a.m. with similar information.

Information was not sent to parents of students in other schools, including those directly across the street from SHSS. A community-wide statement was not issued until 1:15 p.m. when local media were given a copy of a district letter to parents and caregivers.

The district and RCMP determined that the risk level was low and that the school could open Monday morning.

However, with uncertainty regarding the situation growing in the community and rumours spreading, many students stayed home from school.

Shearer said that although there was a high rate of absenteeism on April 17, student attendance had returned to normal by April 19.

Due to privacy issues — the incident involves a minor and a potential criminal investigation — there aren’t a lot of details that the district or police can share with the public about the matter.

Shearer said they also can not comment on whether or not the student involved in the alleged threats will be returning to the school.

READ MORE: Castlegar school shooting threat made worse by social media rumours: mayor

Even though there were communication shortfalls, Shearer says the most important thing — student safety — was handled well.

“The primary objective of a Violence Threat Risk Assessment is to identify those involved with threat, assess the level of risk and mitigate that risk to ensure school safety,” said Shearer. “That part of the process, with the support of the Castlegar RCMP, was done quickly and effectively.”

“To me, it was the communication that was lacking,” said Shearer. “I think that is going to be where the lessons learned will be. The rest of the parts worked well.”

Shearer said that the use of social media is driving a need for more communication.

“My experience is that if we don’t put the message out, then somebody fills it in with what they think it is, but it might not be accurate.”

Ahead of the debrief, Shearer has already identified a few areas that will be examined including aligning communication language with police so there is a consistent message, reviewing if nearby schools should be included in notifications and providing information to the larger community and media.

One step the district has already taken in recent months to improve its communication capacity was to hire a new communications manager. However, that person is still in training and was not part of the response to this incident.

Shearer wants to assure the public that district schools are prepared should a violent incident ever occur.

She says schools have emergency procedures such as hold-and-secure and lockdowns in place. Drills to practice these procedures are done at each school throughout the school year.

SD20 is offering access to counselling services and school support teams for students that were impacted by this event. Castlegar RCMP Victim Services is also offering support. Students and caregivers can access these services by talking to any staff member at the school.

Staff supports are being offered through the district’s Employee Family Assistance Program.

READ MORE: Teenager arrested after wielding knife in Nanaimo high school hallway

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Betsy Kline

About the Author: Betsy Kline

After spending several years as a freelance writer for the Castlegar News, Betsy joined the editorial staff as a reporter in March of 2015. In 2020, she moved into the editor's position.
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