Rumors caused school issue

By Ron Burtz


A report made to the Custer Board of Education indicates the secure building incident at Custer Schools on Thursday morning, Nov. 8, was largely the result of unsubstantiated rumors which had spread throughout all grades at the jr./sr. high school earlier in the week. 

Discussion of the incident took up more than a quarter of the nearly two-hour regular school board meeting the following Monday. Jr./sr. high principal Orion Thompson was the first to report on the situation. 

Thompson said early Thursday morning an unidentified man arrived at the school looking for school resource officer (SRO) Deputy Matt Tramp. The only school employee in the building at that hour was a custodian.  

According to Thompson the man “briefly talked to the custodian, provided no name, no more information. He was just saying that there was something on social media that was concerning.” 

Upon learning of the report while still offsite himself, Thompson says he immediately contacted Tramp, who then asked other officers to come to the school. After Thompson arrived at the school he says a student came in and showed him the video in question. 

“It was concerning enough because there were just so many unknowns,” said Thompson, “I put us into the softest lockdown that we could until I could figure out what direction we needed to go.” That “soft lockdown” is known as secure building status, in which the outside doors are locked and students are kept out of the commons and hallways and sent to their first period classes. Because of its proximity to the jr./sr. high school, Custer Elementary School went into a similar status.

Thompson says after Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley arrived, the student who had posted the video was brought to the office for questioning, “within, I would say, seconds.” 

At this point Mechaley, who was in attendance at the meeting, took over the description of the chain of events.  

“Very quickly we learned that he had been out learning to shoot firearms with his grandfather,” said Mechaley, “and when they were putting the guns back into the safe he just took a short video of it and he posted that onto social media. That’s all that there was to it. There was no threat mentioned or anything, but it took time because we wanted to verify with his parents, or his guardian and the grandfather to make sure of everything that he told us. We were able to verify all that.”  

“It was a mistake,” Mechaley said. “I don’t believe there was any intent there to cause any harm to anybody.”

Thompson said as soon as it was determined there was no actual threat, the secure building status was lifted and school operations went back to normal. 

Superintendent Mark Naugle reported on the debriefing meeting involving the sheriff’s office and school officials on Friday morning. He said the situation was a learning experience for everyone involved.  

Naugle said the time of day made the situation more complicated than normal because parents were still bringing their children to school.  

“It’s something we could handle better next time,” he said. 

For his part Mechaley admitted, “We found that we lacked in some communication with the rest of the school system.” 

Another question raised in the debriefing, according to Naugle, was that of when to notify parents, noting that in this case officials waited until after the incident was over to put out information to parents. 

“If we had something we could deem as a credible threat,” said Mechaley, “we would get that information out quickly. That’s something we didn’t have in this situation. Once we spoke with the individual involved we learned right away that there was no intent to harm anybody but it did take time to verify that story.”

Thompson commented that the partnership the school has with the sheriff’s office through the SRO program helped him to be more efficient and appropriate in his response to the situation.  

“Quite frankly if I had been doing it by myself it would not have gone as well,” said Thompson. He went on to thank Tramp and Mechaley “for being so quick to help me in an unknown situation.”

Naugle noted that the irony of the situation was that a meeting had already been scheduled for the following Tuesday involving Thompson, Tramp and Hermosa principal Lori Enright to  “review our safety plans and to see if there are places we need to update.” 

During the open forum time that followed the discussion of the incident parent Cherish Baker, who was there to talk about another matter, said she had no criticism about the way the situation was handled, except to say, “I was dropping my kids off and I had an officer a few feet away. I really wish he would have just come up to my car and said, ‘We’re securing the building right now for a possible threat,’ and that would have given me the option to drive away.”

Baker said she hadn’t even left the school parking lot before she received a text from one of her children asking to be taken home. 

The matter came up for discussion again later in the meeting during the superintendent/administration reports, when board member Jeff Prior asked whether school officials were looking into the role social media had played in the incident.

“I don’t know if you ever get ahead of it,” said Prior, “but it’s got to be monitored, because that’s the way people are communicating.”

School board president Jared Carson replied, “The only way I know how to do that is to take charge of your own story. You start laying it out before anybody else does.”

Carson said the situation in question was difficult because “it developed from bad information, or not-good information” and rumors were flying faster than officials could determine what was true.

“The only way to mitigate that is to get out in front of it,” he said. 

Board member Jeff Barnes applauded the sheriff’s office for putting out a notice on Facebook right away, followed by an update later.

Thompson said the upside of the situation is that it turned into a teachable moment for himself and Tramp as they met with groups of students throughout the rest of the day. 

Starting with the senior class the pair met with each class for an average of 20 minutes each to learn what stories had been circulating and to quash misinformation. 

“There were 700 rumors that had created off of this one small little piece of information that wasn’t information,” said Thompson. “The best way to get in front of it was for the students to take ownership.”

School officials praised the law enforcement response to the incident noting that an off-duty law enforcement ranger from Wind Cave National Park had heard the report on the police radio on his way to work and volunteered to help. He was posted at the front door of the school while Mechaley and other officers were inside sorting the matter out. 

“I felt good in knowing he was there and I knew nothing was going to get by him,” said Mechaley.  

Prior also commented, “This is why we have Deputy Tramp in the building.”

In other business at the meeting:

• The board heard a report from Paula Wilkinson Smith, executive director of the Lifeways drug and alcohol counseling and prevention program. The program has been in Custer schools for 14 years and is paid for by a grant. Lifeways provides a full-time counselor in the jr./sr. high, but is in danger of being discontinued when the funding runs out at the end of this school year. 

• Naugle reported that 2018-19 enrollment on count day was 940 with an additional 17 students signing up with Black Hills On-Line. That is up from an official enrollment of 895 last year.

• The board approved the addition of a Special Olympics Coordinator at a cost of $429 per year.

Approval was also given for an additional paraprofessional to work with math and algebra in the jr./sr. high.

• An update was given on the TeamMates mentoring program, which is still in need of more volunteer mentors.