Alaska town among four communities unnerved by alleged school plots
NORTH POLE, Alaska ” The arrests of six boys accused of planning an assault on their school has gripped this small Alaska town with an unsettling epiphany: If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
As the nation last week remembered the 13 victims of the Columbine High School massacre, authorities say similar plots were being discussed in at least four small towns in Alaska, Kansas, Mississippi and Washington.
The North Pole seventh-graders, all around 13 years old, had the attack planned down to the smallest detail, authorities said. The boys would first knock out the school’s power and telephone systems, giving them time to stab and shoot teachers they didn’t like and students who picked on them and then escape from the town of 1,600 just outside Fairbanks.
In all four alleged plots, authorities were tipped off by other young people and students were arrested.
The six in North Pole, arrested Saturday, could face charges of first-degree conspiracy to commit murder. They were still being held at a youth facility on Monday, police said. Authorities found weapons in their homes, said Mayor Jeff Jacobson, who also teaches sixth-grade math and language arts at the 500-pupil school.
“I was shocked and then heartbroken,” Jacobson said during a lunch break in his classroom Monday. “I saw one of them led away in handcuffs, this little boy.”
Parents waiting to pick up their children after school said they were deeply shaken.
“We thought we were in a bubble,” said Cindy Slingerland as she waited outside the school with her husband, Mark, for their 13-year-old daughter, Jenny. “Nothing ever happens here. This is by far the biggest scare for my children.”
In Kansas, Washington and Mississippi, residents were feeling the same gut-wrenching blow.
Five boys in Riverton, Kan., were charged Monday with threatening to carry out a shooting spree at their high school last Thursday, the seventh anniversary of the Columbine massacre.
In Mississippi, two Pearl Junior High School students were arrested Sunday night and charged with making threatening statements about classmates on the popular teen Web site Xanga and warning students not to go to school on May 1. Pearl Police Chief Bill Slade said the students used the name of Luke Woodham, who is serving a life sentence for a 1997 shooting rampage that killed his mother and two people at Pearl High School.
In Puyallup, Wash., a 16-year-old was charged Monday in an alleged plot to shoot people at his school. In an instant message to a fellow student, the teen wrote about an attack and suicide “to finally go out in a blaze of hatred and fury,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.
Authorities found caches of weapons and ammunition in suspects’ homes in at least three of the plots.
In Washington, the search of Brian Michael Evans’ home also turned up a homemade bomb and a CD with instructions for making explosives, Troyer said. The teenager apparently wanted people to “feel his pain, and he wanted to be hated, not having earned respect in the past,” Troyer said.
Fears of another attack also rattled Minnesota’s Red Lake High School, where a 16-year-old killed seven people and himself last spring. On Tuesday, The Star Tribune of Minneapolis quoted a letter sent to parents by interim Principal Brent Colligan saying investigators were looking into information that a “group of students were threatening to form some sort of an assault on the Red Lake High School.”
For Alaskans, the arrests in North Pole ” where a main road is called Santa Claus Lane and the light poles are curved and striped like candy canes ” jogged memories of a school plot nine years earlier.
In 1997, Evan Ramsey opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun as students assembled in a high school lobby, killing a principal and 16-year-old classmate in Bethel, a southwestern Alaska town of 6,000. Ramsey, then 16, is now serving a 198-year prison term.
In the North Pole case, authorities have said another child told a parent that rumors were circulating about a plot, and that parent went to police.
Nine other students at the school, including at least one girl, were suspended for withholding information and will not be allowed to return to school until authorities have completed the investigation.
School officials, meanwhile, tried to assure parents that their children were safe Monday. They stressed that no weapons were ever found on campus or in the nearby woods. A police officer patrolled the halls, and extra counselors were brought in to help students.
“It has been surprisingly calm,” said Wayne Gerke, an assistant superintendent with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
Adults, perhaps, are having a tougher time shaking the anxiety than their children. The students initially reacted with fear, but by Monday streamed out of the school entrance, giggling and elbowing each other.
“I feel fine, I feel safe,” 14-year-old Cabe Harris said as he climbed into the front seat next to his mother Jo Harris. “This is a nice place.”
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