Herald JournalHerald Journal, May 16, 2005

Waconia schools closed due to threats

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

Shortly before hosting a meeting with school officials, law enforcement, city officials, and parents about several threats the district received – Waconia Schools Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard made the decision to keep all four school buildings closed Wednesday through Friday last week.

Kjergaard said a series of anonymous threats were found at the middle and high schools and spawned “a climate of fear” that made him feel “like everything was kind of spinning out of control.”

The Waconia High School gym was filled wall-to-wall with at least 2,000 people who gathered for a public meeting Wednesday night regarding the threats.

Kjergaard told the gathering that he had decided about 6:30 p.m. to keep the schools closed until Monday, according to the Star Tribune.

“I didn’t want children to come to school scared,” he said. “I don’t want parents in this district to worry.”

“I’m glad they closed schools the rest of the week,” said Cindy Gueningsman, who lives north of New Germany and has two children attending the Waconia School District. “Nowadays, you just never know what’s going to happen,”

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More than 2,300 students attend Waconia High School, Clearwater Middle School and Bayview and Southview elementary schools. The district includes all or parts of Waconia, New Germany, and St. Bonifacius.

Gueningsman felt the district did a good job at making parents aware of the situation, and also noted the large turnout at the public meeting Wednesday.

“It was packed. It took a while for us to get through traffic and get in,” she said. “It was a very informative meeting. I was very impressed how they did it – they answered a lot of questions. There’s no way to guarantee 100 percent nothing’s going to happen, but it’s a place to start.”

The troubles began within the district May 2 with a bomb threat scrawled on the wall of a girls’ bathroom at the middle school, reported the Star Tribune.

The message sparked an investigation that soon grew to include a suspicious-looking package found May 4 in a bathroom at the Safari Island Recreational Center, which adjoins the middle school. The Bloomington bomb squad later found it to be harmless, said Carver County Sheriff’s Commander Bob VanDenBroeke.

Nevertheless, the community center was closed Wednesday and will remain so until today.

Six threatening notes arrived at the middle school this week, two on Monday and four on Tuesday. Two of the messages were found at the school, and four were sent through the mail, according to Carver County Sheriff Bud Olson.

A note received Monday listed the names of seven students and several teachers, said VanDenBroeke, noting that it also contained Wednesday’s date, but no specific threat. VanDenBroeke said several of the notes mentioned the word “bomb,” but were vague. One note contained a threat against Waconia High School.

Graffiti and threats about guns also were found Tuesday in a girls’ bathroom at the high school, though investigators were still considering whether it was serious or merely the work of a copycat.

Police and a pair of bomb-sniffing dogs searched the school buildings Wednesday.

Olson implored parents at the public meeting to talk to their kids – and inspect their computers if necessary – to learn who is responsible for the threats.

“We need from you to go home to your kids tonight and sit down with them at your kitchen table and say, ‘What’s the story, kids?’” Olson said. “You need to go look in their computers. You gotta go look in their chat rooms.”

A $1,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the case.

Olson said Thursday afternoon that a security assessment is being done within the Waconia School District, and see if there are any additional measures to prevent these threats from occuring. He said that while there is no way to prevent everything, he hopes to build more confidence in the school's plan for dealing with such issues.

"We are looking for the thread that ties them all together," Olson said, noting that interviews have been done with students and staff involved. " . . . reduce fears and get the schools back to teaching and learning," Olson said.

Kjergaard said the threats have been “an anomaly,” according to the Star Tribune. He speculated that they were written by “somebody who is really sick. Or it could be a group of somebodies.”

The Carver County Sheriff’s Department asked the FBI and US Postal inspectors to help with the investigation because some of the threats were mailed. Investigators with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension are also working on the case, according to Olson.

Dozens of students and other people have been interviewed, but no motive or suspects have emerged, VanDenBroeke said.

“The joint investigation is focused on identifying the person or persons responsible and calming the community,” Olson said.

Investigators found no clear links between the messages, but they think they are connected, VanDenBroeke said.

About 150 students stayed away from Waconia’s schools Tuesday, another factor in Kjergaard’s decision to close the schools.

Kjergaard announced at the public meeting on Wednesday that the school year will be extended two days – until June 7 – to make up for the missed time, reported the Star Tribune. Parents applauded after he made the announcement.

All four schools are expected to reopen with additional security Monday, May 16. When Clearwater Middle School reopens, students there will not be allowed to enter the building with backpacks or other duffels, according to information posted on the school district’s web site.

At the other three buildings, backpacks and other duffels will be subject to search.

In addition, police and security personnel will be present at each building.
Faculty and staff returning to school May 16 will be required to present identification. Those who wish to enter a facility outside the normal school day will be required to have prior approval, including to Safari Island.

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