Having a gun threat at your school is for most principals unthinkable. Ian Rawlinson spoke of first hearing the threat to Ponoka Composite High School Dec. 21 and what was going on in his mind.
It was about 9 a.m. when the principal first heard there might be a safety issue; he understood the threat was planned for the afternoon during the school Christmas banquet. The first step was to try and gather more information and the next was to take that information and make a decision on what to do.
“Members of the public and students had come forward to us that informed us of the threat…it came directly to the administration,” explained Rawlinson.
He credits threat assessment training within the school district for helping him and other staff work quickly in this situation. “I took a moment to just think how to proceed, and it was only a moment but you just sort of gather what you know, which wasn’t a lot. You try to find out if any of it’s true,” he said.
Ponoka RCMP were called almost immediately. “In my opinion you don’t gamble with the safety of our kids. It’s not something you roll the dice on.”
Rawlinson said the first step in this situation is to analyze the threat. Staff have questions they can ask themselves to determine the seriousness of the situation. “It helps to determine if it’s real or not…You ask yourself enough questions and if there’s any truth to them you say OK, where do we go now?”
Despite having limited information, there was much support for his decision to close the school. Rawlinson also credits RCMP for their quick action. “I would say within five minutes they were within our school…My overwhelming thanks is just for the response system that we have in place.”
A partial lockdown of the school was set in place and staff were notified shortly after that the student who allegedly threatened violence was placed in custody.
Rawlinson wrote a letter to parents Jan. 2 answering many of the questions he received after returning to school. He believes giving some details to the events helped ease concerns people may have had over the issue. A debriefing with RCMP, school administration and student services for Wolf Creek Some staff members have level 1 training and others in the crisis management team have level 2 training needed to work with students.
Dealing with news organizations, involving the police and even logistical planning to get students home was discussed in an open forum with all the departments. He feels schools and administrators in the province need a general guideline in how to respond to these types of situations.
“The parent community has been so supportive of the actions of this school that it means a great deal to me and it means a great deal to the staff,” said Rawlinson.
Parents have thanked him for erring on the side of caution when it came to their children’s safety and he is grateful for their support. “To me I think one of the worst things you can do is under-react.”
A crisis team was at the school on the first day back and was available throughout the week to assist students, parents and staff if they needed help with the issue.
Superintendent Larry Jacobs said there are several levels of a crisis management team. The first level came with the knowledge of the threat the same day and involved Rawlinson, assistant superintendent Jayson Lovell and the RCMP. A second level of crisis management involved school liaison staff to assist students, parents and teachers if needed.
Family school liaison workers usually assist in situations such as this, said Jacobs, who was also part of this team. Some of what they had to deal with was uncertainty. “The students are usually unclear of what had happened.”
Some of the counselling given to students was how to behave to be safe by ensuring side doors are locked. Being able to cope with nervousness was addressed as well, said Jacobs.
Kevin Cameron of the Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response
• provided training for threat assessment previously. Training gives Level 1 and 2 threat assessment skills, explained Jacobs
Some staff members have level 1 training and others in the crisis management team have level 2 training needed to work with students.
“He’s actually coming back into our school system to provide level 1 and level 2 training in the next few weeks,” said Jacobs.
Staff will be re-certified in their threat level assessment. The crisis management team anticipated many questions from staff and students but the letter from Rawlinson helped answer many of those concerns, he said. Jacobs also wrote a letter on the situation and it was posted on the PCHS website.
He credits police for their assistance throughout this experience. “The RCMP were just fantastic… They were superb in the whole process.”
Looking back, Jacobs feels the decisions made at the time were for this specific event but he feels there might be a need to standardize how all the Wolf Creek schools will deal with these situations in the future.
Teachers also increased their presence in the hallways and ate lunch with students to answer any questions they may have on the threat.
News coverage of what happened was quite large and Rawlinson fielded calls from provincial and national news agencies seeking information on the situation. “To be brutally honest, it was relentless.”
During a school assembly Jan. 2, Rawlinson advised students on ways to deal with questions from reporters. He suggested it was appropriate for students to speak to the media but advised them to be cautious in their wording and not to speculate.
Teachers have followed up with students to ensure nothing was missed in the investigation but their hope is to get back to a normal schedule and assist students as needed.
Rawlinson credits vice-principals Kathy McTaggart and Ron Rarick for having positive relationships with students. “They know kids in this building more than what I do…I would say those vice-principals, they hear not only what goes on in the school, they hear what goes on, on the weekend.”
It helps students feel they can come to staff and discuss serious issues. Since the event and Rawlinson’s letter there have been many calls and letters of support for decisions made on the day of the threat. “It’s almost been overwhelming to me…Honest to goodness it means a lot.”
Students returned to PCHS Jan. 2 and teachers are working on preparing students for exams.