COAL TOWNSHIP — A student at Shamokin Area Middle/High School who made a threat in school has been expelled for at least a year and is in an out-of-district youth placement center.
Meanwhile, 824 district students, including approximately 47 percent of the middle/high school population, were absent Thursday as many parents decided to keep their children home after the threat was reported Wednesday morning.
Shamokin Area School Board Vice President Brian Persing, who is a member of the district’s security committee, said the male freshman who made the threat won’t be able to return to school for at least a year.
No details have been provided about the threat, but it reportedly involved carrying out a mass shooting at the school and came one week after a shooting that killed 17 students and staff at a high school in Florida.
Persing said reports on social media that the student was previously expelled or suspended are not true, and clarified that the threat was made at least a week ago, not Wednesday morning as previously reported.
He explained that the student was out of school due to sickness for five days before returning Wednesday with a doctor’s excuse. Persing said two students who allegedly heard the boy make a threat in school prior to his absence saw the teen in school Wednesday morning and reported the threat to high school administrators after becoming scared and concerned for everyone’s safety.
Persing said administrators were not aware of the threat before the students reported it. Afterward, they contacted Coal Township police, who are continuing their investigation. The juvenile has not been charged, police said Thursday.
Persing said 498 middle/high school (grades 7 to 12) were absent Thursday. He said 79 out of 347 students who attend the Annex building and 247 (approximately 30 percent) of elementary school students did not attend class.
“Some kids were sick, but I believe most of them didn’t come to school because of the threat that was made,” Persing said. “Parents didn’t feel it was safe to send their kids.”
He added, “There were no weapons involved in this incident at all.”
Persing said Superintendent James Zack issued a message Thursday afternoon to parents through the school alert system about the situation and also posted a letter to parents on the district’s website. Persing said every student who was at school Thursday also received a letter to give to their parents.
He said district officials want to be as transparent as possible with students, parents and the community, but must respect privacy concerns.
“It’s an ongoing investigation,” he said. “These things take time. Our No. 1 priority is safety. Parents must have faith in the superintendent and principals that they have the best interest of their children in mind in everything they do.”
School board members Edward Griffiths and Charles Shuey also serve on the security committee chaired by Griffiths. Administrators and other board members attend committee meetings as well.
At their meeting Tuesday night, school board members took measures to improve security by promoting three part-time armed security guards to full-time status, approving active shooter trainer for teachers and staff and advertising for another full-time armed school security guard.
Additional measures such as installing more metal detectors and bullet-proof glass on windows and making access at the main entrance to the high school more restrictive also have been recommended by the district’s security committee are under consideration.
Persing said additional metal detectors will expedite the process of students going through security lines in the morning. He said district officials also are considering having a separate metal detector for students with backpacks or prohibiting backpacks all together.
Parents expressed concern Thursday about the situation, some believing school officials should have informed students and parents more quickly.
Jennifer Seidel, of Shamokin, whose three children in 10th, eighth and seventh grades stayed home Thursday, learned of the situation when her eldest called her after school Wednesday.
“It’s here, mom; the shooting stuff,” her daughter said, describing how word was spreading about the threat that was to be carried out Thursday.
Seidel said her daughter heard the information secondhand, but that teachers were also talking about it. Seidel called the school Wednesday afternoon and was told by a secretary that they were aware of the threat and that the parents of the student who made the threat, and police, were notified. She was told that more information was forthcoming.
But when Wednesday evening went by and there was no call on the school alert system or information posted on the school’s website about the situation, Seidel’s frustration grew.
“We were looking for someone to say, ‘We’re working on this.’ That’s a pretty low bar, and they didn’t even meet that,” she said. “Even if it was to say that they don’t have all the answers or information; just to check in.”
In the first line of his six-paragraph letter, Zack wrote, “We apologize for the delayed response but we wanted to have the most up-to-date information to share with everyone.” He also wrote, “Yesterday’s threat was immediately investigated, founded and has been addressed.” No details were provided.
Zack warned that social media, “when used incorrectly, can be damaging to people and to an investigation. Sharing rumors only adds to the needless concern and distracts the focus that may be needed for a threat at hand.”
The letter coming some 24 hours later was “too little, too late,” said Seidel, who called Zack’s message “snarky.”
“He was admonishing us parents for social media use,” she said.
“Communications is important, especially … when all we heard with this last story (from Florida) is ‘we warned them,’” she added. “So not to communicate with us was irresponsible and dangerous.”
Knowing what she does now, Seidel said she is comfortable with her children being in school today.
The mother of a Shamokin Area junior said her first knowledge of the situation is when her son texted her Wednesday, asking if she had life insurance on him. She, too, believes the school needed to act sooner.
“As a parent, I would have liked to have been told that this is going on, been told that there were threats made,” she said.
The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, wanted her son to stay home Thursday, but he insisted on going, she said.
Zack said the district “will be proactive in sharing any causes for concern if necessary.” He said school officials believe in “see something, say something,” and that through that approach, “we are able to investigate events, even before most of you know what is happening.”