Schools closed throughout Flathead County due to threats

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  • A row of school buses is seen parked outside Hedges Elementary School in Kalispell last year. School today has been closed throughout Flathead County due to an unspecified threat. (Daily Inter Lake file photo)

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    Gary Bushaw walks his dog Piper through the empty Flathead High School parking lot on Thursday. Schools valleywide were called off Thursday due to threats made via text message and email. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • A row of school buses is seen parked outside Hedges Elementary School in Kalispell last year. School today has been closed throughout Flathead County due to an unspecified threat. (Daily Inter Lake file photo)

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    Gary Bushaw walks his dog Piper through the empty Flathead High School parking lot on Thursday. Schools valleywide were called off Thursday due to threats made via text message and email. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office has identified and is conducting interviews with persons of interest regarding a series of threats made via text message and email that led to the closure of schools throughout the valley.

“We have some leads and are following up on those leads,” Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry told the Inter Lake.

Due to the ongoing investigation, the specific nature of the threats is being withheld. The FBI is assisting local agencies with the investigation.

“We are putting a lot of resources into this as you can imagine,” said Curry.

Schools throughout Flathead County closed Thursday due to the threats, including Flathead Valley Community College and some area preschools.

Schools will remain closed on Friday, along with the FVCC campus, including the Lincoln County campus.

Although schools remain closed, “We have no information to believe there is a immediate public threat,” Curry added.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, Columbia Falls Police Department and the FBI began a joint investigation Wednesday evening following a series of electronic threats that area schools began receiving.

The threats started with the Columbia Falls School District and eventually spread throughout the evening and early morning hours to other area schools. All the threats were made via text or email, Curry said.

Investigators from all the involved agencies have worked throughout the night and are continuing to follow up on leads, he added.

“It’s not extremely unusual for schools to receive threats. Law enforcement does their best to decide the credibility,” Curry said.

The threats began hours after a high school student in a town southeast of Spokane, Washington, shot and killed a fellow student and injured three others.

“In light of national and regional events that have occurred in schools, we feel that there is at least enough credibility to mount a full scale investigation,” Curry added.

Anyone with any information is asked to contact the Flathead County Detective Division at 758-5610.

The Whitefish Police Department was also assisting and making extra patrols around Whitefish schools and the city in general, a release from City Manager Adam Hammatt said.

The doors to City Hall were locked but remained open for business. Visitors were asked to enter the front main entrance and knock for assistance.

Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Jack Eggensperger said Columbia Falls School District was the first to call a little after 10 p.m. Wednesday to notify him of the school closure following electronic threats sent to, or mentioning local schools.

By 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, Eggensperger said that in addition to Columbia Falls, Kalispell, Evergreen, Whitefish, Bigfork and West Valley school districts were also canceling school. Eventually, all schools in the valley followed suit except for Pleasant Valley, which remained open. All totaled, school was canceled for 34 individual public schools, six private schools, Flathead Valley Community College and some preschool programs.

“I’ve been up all night pretty much,” Eggensperger said. “It’s up to each individual school to close.”

Most school districts distributed information to families through notification systems via automated phone calls, text messages, emails and social media.

On Thursday morning, administrators were at schools fielding phone calls or attending to students or parents who still showed up for school. Smith Valley School Principal Laili Komenda had at least one student dropped off at the school. Smith Valley made the decision to cancel school early this morning. Komenda has been in contact with Flathead County Sheriff’s Office after receiving an emailed threat.

In Kalispell Public Schools, Superintendent Mark Flatau said he became aware of the threats Columbia Falls School District received around 10 p.m. Wednesday. Initially, notifications went out to families saying school would still be in session Thursday because the district had not received a threat, nor was it mentioned in threats sent to other schools. However, nearly an hour after those initial notifications went out to families, it was learned that Kalispell Public Schools was being named in threats — although it had not received any texts or emails directly. Following the new information, text messages went out alerting families that school was canceled as late as 1 a.m. Thursday.

The notification explained:

“Wednesday evening, Columbia Falls School District received threats via text messages that specifically targeted schools in their district. As the evening progressed, other districts in our area were included in or received additional threats which included Kalispell Public Schools.

“For the safety and best interest of our students and staff, the KPS will be closed on Thursday, September 14, 2017. Area law enforcement agencies are working diligently to solve this matter.”

The text messages were followed up with voice messages around 6 a.m.

“It literally goes out to nearly 10,000 phone numbers in our system in a matter of minutes,” Flatau said about the notifications.

Some schools such as Bigfork School District were not named in threats, but as Bigfork Superintendent Matt Jensen stated to families: “…the nature of the threats and our proximity to the threats give me great concern.”

In a notification sent out to Whitefish School District families, Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said safety is the highest priority.

“Many threats directed at schools are made with the intent of disrupting education. Threats like these breed fear, anxiety and frustration for us all. While the vast majority of these threats turn out to be hoaxes, they have to be investigated and taken seriously. The safety and welfare of our students and staff is our highest priority.”

In the meantime, Kalispell Police Department officer Corey Clarke, who serves as a school resource officer for Flathead, said there are extra patrols at schools.

While it could be the first time that schools have closed county-wide due to threats, it’s not the first time area schools have been threatened.

In 2015, David Joseph Lenio was arrested and accused of making social media threats against Kalispell school children and Jewish leaders in Twitter rants. He was charged with felony intimidation, but in 2016, the Flathead County Attorney’s Office agreed to defer prosecution in an agreement, which calls for the case to be dismissed after two years if Lenio remains “a law-abiding citizen at all times.”

School closures are posted online at https://flathead.mt.gov/schools.

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