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Threats, rumors prompt school closure, arrests, additional police presence

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 8:39 a.m. MDT

Following a week of continuous rumors, several schools across Utah increased police presence on their campuses Friday, apparently out of an abundance of caution. One school canceled classes altogether. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Following a week of continuous rumors, several schools across Utah increased police presence on their campuses Friday, apparently out of an abundance of caution. One school canceled classes altogether. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

HYRUM, Cache County — Following a week of continuous rumors, several schools across Utah increased police presence on their campuses Friday, apparently out of an abundance of caution.

One school canceled classes altogether. Two students in Roosevelt were arrested after police say they threatened to bring a gun to school and "do what they did in Connecticut." And five students at Syracuse High School will be referred to juvenile court for charges of disrupting a school for allegedly bringing an old home video game system to the school and telling other students it was a bomb, according to the school district.

Despite the extra police presence, none of the affected schools reported having any substantive information that their buildings were in imminent risk of a violent episode.

"Rumors have been going on all week. A lot of the rumors centered around (Friday). And whether that's the perfect storm, I don't know. But you put in there the last day of school before Christmas break, the Mayan calendar, and the shooting that occurred in Connecticut, that's the perfect storm," said Davis County School District spokesman Chris Williams. "I think people have been hypersensitive. I'm not faulting anyone by any stretch of the imagination."

Following a week of continuous rumors, several schools across Utah increased police presence on their campuses Friday, apparently out of an abundance of caution. One school canceled classes altogether. (Kristin Nichols, Deseret News) Following a week of continuous rumors, several schools across Utah increased police presence on their campuses Friday, apparently out of an abundance of caution. One school canceled classes altogether. (Kristin Nichols, Deseret News)

Late Thursday, an 11th-hour decision was made to cancel Friday's classes at Mountain Crest High School in the Cache County School District following word of a possible threat. The action was taken after a female student twice overheard a group of boys talking in the cafeteria about what she thought was some sort of violent action that would take place on Friday.

"On two separate occasions she heard some boys talking about how someone is going to take their life tomorrow and maybe take other students with them," said Cache School District Superintendent Steve Norton.

The student did not mention what she heard until she got home and told her father, who in turn called police. Officers then notified the district. Norton said the district spent three to four hours trying to identify the boys who made the alleged statements, but the girl said she didn't get a good look at them because her back was turned to them. By 11:30 p.m., Norton said the decision was made to cancel school the next day for the 1,700 students at the high school.

Classes were canceled at Mountain Crest High School in Hyrum on Friday because of a threat school and law enforcement personnel received Dec. 21, 2012. (John Zsiray , Herald Journal) Classes were canceled at Mountain Crest High School in Hyrum on Friday because of a threat school and law enforcement personnel received Dec. 21, 2012. (John Zsiray , Herald Journal)

"The lesson we have learned from studying other (school shooting) incidents is that there were kids in every case who knew and heard something was going to happen, so there was nothing we could do but take it very seriously," he said.

Norton noted that students were only scheduled to attend a half-day of school Friday anyway because of the Christmas break. He hopes that during the break, if there are students who have information about a threat, that they or their parents will step forward.

Mountain Crest sophomore Ammon Christensen was greeted Friday morning at the bus stop by a driver who said, “I’m only taking kids to South Cache today. I’m not picking up students from Mountain Crest.”

Christensen, a 15-year-old student from Wellsville, had seen posts on Facebook indicating a possible school cancellation, but he had no idea what was going on. “When I woke up this morning, my first thought was ‘Oh, crap. I have a book report due today.’ Then, when I heard the news, I was like, ‘Oh, crap. This is crazy.”

A sign taped to the inside of a window at Mountain Crest High School in Hyrum explaining the campus is A sign taped to the inside of a window at Mountain Crest High School in Hyrum explaining the campus is "locked down" early Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. (John Zsiray , Herald Journal)

Shortly after 7 a.m., the high school's automated parent alert system sent out a cryptic message saying, “Due to an unverified threat at Mountain Crest High School, we have decided to err on the side of caution. School is canceled today. Happy holidays.”

“From the way they handled this, I can tell they were really on top of things,” said Zach Swensen, a 16-year-old student at Mountain Crest. “I feel like Mountain Crest is still a pretty safe school, and when it comes time to go back to school next year, I’ll think I’ll be pretty safe.”

The closure, however, did prompt Swensen to take extra care for his young sister, a ninth-grader at nearby South Cache 8-9 Center. Although his sister usually rides the bus, Swensen decided to give her a ride to school.

“I decided I wanted to take her to school because Mountain Crest and South Cache are pretty closely related. Just in case, I just wanted that extra time with her. I could tell she was a little uneasy, and I wanted to help calm her down," he said. "While we were driving, I told her it would be alright. I told her the threat was just at Mountain Crest. I told her to be safe.”

Norton acknowledged that it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for students to make a hoax threat, believing it was a prank.

"That always is a concern. But with the actions and the events that have happened in our country recently, it's pretty difficult not to take it and run the worst-case scenario and say, 'We got to prepare for that,' and that's what we did here," he said. "We just believe this was the right thing to do."

Although Mountain Crest was the only school in the district that canceled classes Friday, the Cache County Sheriff's Office made an effort to be extra visible at the district's other schools.

"We told our patrol people to be in the area and drive through the parking lots and things like that," said Cache County Sheriff's Lt. Brian Locke. "We're trying to make our presence known in those schools."

But Locke also said the rumors that had been circulating among students and parents were just that, rumors.

"There is no threat to any of the schools or anything like that. We're just making our presence known," he said. "We haven't been able to substantiate (the reported threat) at all."

Mountain Crest was one of several schools throughout the state taking extra safety precautions Friday.

• Syracuse High School also had an extra police presence Friday, including bomb-sniffing dogs from Hill Air Force Base that were brought in early to do a sweep of the school. Students were not allowed to wear backpacks to class and only two entryways were open at the school on Friday, Williams said.

The action came a day after five students were referred to juvenile court for an alleged prank that involved a fake bomb.

"It was the wrong thing at the wrong time," Williams said. "You can't yell, 'Fire' in a crowded movie theater."

Syracuse High has been fielding hundreds of phone calls all week from concerned parents as the rumor of possible school violence spread, he said. The school also has conducted numerous interviews with students to determine if there was any substance to the threats. A letter was sent out by the school this week to parents informing them of what was happening.

"There's not been any substantiated threat at all. Syracuse, as well as schools across the nation, have been dealing with all sorts of rumors," Williams said. "We've had nothing credible. But my belief is they want to do everything they could so they feel comfortable, so parents feel comfortable, so students feel comfortable the school is safe."

Williams said the same rumors have been happening at other schools in the district as well as around the nation, most of them fueled by social media.

"I've gone on Facebook and Twitter for the past couple of days and rumors like this are not only in this county, but all over the country."

Parent Melanie Lewis, who has a child who attends Syracuse High, said Friday she was "relieved" to know the rumors and threats were being taken seriously and that the parents were being informed.

"I have mixed emotions regarding closing the schools and keeping kids home. After last week’s shooting, I want to keep my kids home and safe from harm. But realistically that can’t happen. Kids need to be in school," she said. "I believe in our schools, and that they will do what is right. Whether it be adding more police presence, holding classes or closing the school for the day. Bad things do happen, but we can’t all live in fear. I don’t want my kids to live that way."

• In Salt Lake County, West Jordan police also made a proactive increased police presence at several schools, including Copper Hills High and West Jordan High.

• Two students were arrested Wednesday at Roosevelt Junior High School after one of them threatened to bring a gun to school and "do what they did in Connecticut," according to Roosevelt Police Lt. Ben Lemmon. The other boy allegedly agreed to help his classmate carry out the plan.

"He said, 'I'll do it. We'll kill everybody,'" the lieutenant said.

The boys, ages 12 and 13, were upset because teachers had halted a game of dodge ball that had gotten too heated, Lemmon said. Teachers overheard the boys' conversation and notified police, who booked the pair into the Split Mountain Youth Detention Center in Vernal.

The boys are expected to be referred to juvenile court on one allegation each of making a terroristic threat, which would be a second-degree felony if they were adults.

• In Moab, school officials received information that a student might be bringing a gun to either the Grand County High School or the Grand County Middle School. Law enforcement increased its presence at the schools Friday as a precaution, but no incidents were reported.

"Everything's just a rumor at this point," Grand County Sheriff Steven White said. "We are following up on every bit of the intelligence that we can get on this. We will follow it through to the very end."

• Since the Connecticut shooting a week ago, an 11-year-old West Kearns Elementary student was charged in juvenile court with bringing a gun to school and pointing it at students. He claimed he brought the gun to the school, 4620 W. 4900 South, to protect himself and his friends in the event of a school shooting like the recent tragedy in Connecticut.

• Weber County sheriff's deputies also responded this week to a rumored threat at Bonneville High School of a person bringing a gun to school. That rumor turned out to be false.

Contributing: Jennifer S. Christensen, Geoff Liesik

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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