Editorial: Athol’s prompt response to school threat sets an example

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The days of responding to a bomb scare with a fire truck, cruiser and a quick search of lockers are a time of innocence that’s long gone.

Today, for reasons we as a nation can barely understand or agree upon, schools and other public places have become shooting galleries whenever some disgruntled, mentally troubled or deranged person with access to guns decides to act.

In this imperfect world, there is no room for error any more when it comes to handling threats to schools and the students and staff in them. How to address this new affliction is the subject for a deep discourse in our nation. If there’s a fix, it will be a long time coming. But in the meantime, we rely on our local police to keep our children safe.

This past Tuesday in Athol we saw how it can be done — when the town police reacted to a report of a direct threat to local students at 10 a.m. Athol-Royalston Regional Schools Superintendent Darcy Fernandes reported a male Athol High School student — who was not in school that day — had made a “credible threat” to students on social media. The police response was swift and sure-footed, as the officers moved to secure local schools and find the teen, with whom they were familiar with and concerned about from some earlier interactions.

Police Chief Russell Kleber met with School Resource Officer Doug Kaczmarczyk, who was on site. They confirmed the threat was real, and Kleber sent a second officer to the high school and other officers to the other schools. The superintendent’s office called the Royalston Police Department to ensure a police presence was at Royalston Community School.

Kleber said, “Our first concern was the overall safety of all the students in the school system.” He reached out to the State Police commander, who activated the Community Action Team and sent several troopers to Athol — directly to the schools.

All teachers were alerted, a message was posted on the school district’s website and auto calls were made to parents. School remained in session and the investigation continued.

Kleber said he was pleased with the rapid response and assistance from the State Police. He was in direct contact with Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan and he also contacted the Town Manager Shaun Suhoski to inform people in town government of the situation.

“There was no imminent threat,” said Kleber. “It was at a different level.”

Nonetheless, the police were anxious as they searched for the teen, who was found about two hours later. Because the teen is a juvenile, by law police can’t identify him or discuss the specific charges against him, and his case will be heard in juvenile court, which is not usually open to the public. So, publicly at least, we may never know what happens to the teen in this case.

Fernandes said the student will not be returning to school, and that the school will be holding a hearing with the student and his parents.

That Kleber and his officers and state police moved so quickly likely has to do with the fact Kleber had this teen on the radar before Tuesday, and because he’s been thinking about the potential threats to schools in this new world of ours.

Kleber, a former FBI agent and academy instructor, had already scheduled safety briefings with different groups in town, following the recent school shooting in Florida. The presentations will be based on one he calls “Athol KIDS (Keeping Innocents Defended and Safe),” a one-hour program he developed for the students and teachers of Athol-Royalston School District.

And Kleber had already been discussing with Fernandes a lesson plan and one-hour block of instruction at Athol schools. The instruction would be given to faculty, staff and students at the middle and high schools, but just the staff at the elementary school.

The response to Tuesday’s threat shows that Athol is being well served by its police department and chief, who is thinking ahead and trying to stay out front of this complex and vexing threat to our communities and their children in today’s world.

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