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Schools, police sort out fact from rumor in gun threats

By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer

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Many area students took a day off school Friday.

Districts reported the usual seasonal absenteeism, fueled by holiday fervor and illness, but some experienced even more empty desks than expected as students used unsubstantiated gun threats as a reason to stay home.

“We’ve had rumors that have floated all week,” William Stauffer, superintendent at Springfield schools, said. “I’m guessing that a lot of schools are dealing with the same stuff.”

Plain Local Schools in Stark County might have experienced the highest absenteeism in the region Friday. The district reported that about half of the nearly 2,000 students enrolled at GlenOak High School skipped out.

Excuses ranged from holiday travel to illness to concerns over recent rumors of violence in the school, an administrator said.

At Coventry Local School, about 300 students were absent, Superintendent Russell Chaboudy said.

The district fought illness, Christmas anticipation and — like others — empty threats of pending gun violence.

“There was no truth to it,” Chaboudy said of tips received throughout the week.

On Monday, Coventry officials were informed a student had a gun on school property. Summit County sheriff’s deputies later ascertained that the rumor stemmed from a conversation among high school students surrounding the Connecticut killings. One student overheard and misconstrued the conversation as an imminent gun threat.

That student’s parent got wind of it and phoned the school.

Then, on Friday morning as deputies traveled to the high school on a patrol requested by the district after the Sandy Hook shootings, deputies again were tipped off that a student had a gun on school grounds.

This time, an email from a man, whose wife’s cousin attends Coventry High School, made the unsubstantiated tip, police and school officials said.

Each tip had a significant pitfall for police.

“It doesn’t give a when or who or how,” said Bill Holland, an inspector with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.

The tips have been coming in all week to sheriff’s offices from Medina to Portage counties, Holland said. They have kept police busy chasing “pretty vague and unsubstantiated” rumors.

“That’s OK, because that’s our job,” Holland said. The Dec. 14 shooting of 20 elementary students in Connecticut “fuels the rumor mills and it heightens people’s awareness of what’s going on in the schools.”

The tips have also kept school officials on their toes.

Superintendent Jeff Wendorf of Lake Local Schools issued an email and phone call to parents Wednesday informing them of “talk regarding a threat of a school shooting at Lake High School this Friday (Dec. 21). The rumors continue to be forwarded via texts amongst our students,” the message detailed. “Please help us by talking to your student about texting and further perpetuation of this rumor.”

For Chaboudy, this wasn’t the first week shrouded by tragedy and fueled by suspicion.

The principal at Green Middle School recalls two weeks of tension following the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Much like this past week, fear and speculation churned up rumors.

“That’s the problem,” Chaboudy said.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.