COEUR d'ALENE - Rumors that a student is planning to bring a gun to school and shoot people on Friday, the same day the Mayan calendar predicts the world will end, are spreading rampantly among school-age children in Kootenai County and throughout the nation.
School officials and law enforcement officers in Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls say they have checked out numerous reports of threats of school violence this week and have found no evidence that students are in danger.
The rumored threats come in the wake of last week's school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
"We've run down every rumor, every Facebook posting. Right now, we have no valid threat," said Coeur d'Alene Police Sgt. Christie Wood.
Wood and Post Falls Police Chief Scot Haug each told The Press there is no evidence that any threat was made by a local student. If a threat of violence was found to have come from a Coeur d'Alene student, Wood said that child would face serious disciplinary action.
School districts and police agencies throughout the country are dealing with similar situations, Wood said.
Patrol officers in Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls and Kootenai County sheriff's deputies are increasing their presence at area schools, in addition to school resource officers already assigned to some campuses.
"We're trying to position officers at the schools at key times as a precaution to try to get a calming effect," said Post Falls Chief Haug.
School officials in Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls responded Wednesday by sending emails and letters to parents advising them that the districts are working closely with local law enforcement agencies and investigating every allegation.
"At this point, nothing is substantiated other than a horrible rumor," stated the letter Coeur d'Alene parents received. "Unfortunately in light of the tragic events from last week, even a rumor is striking fear in many of our students and parents."
School administrators in Coeur d'Alene met with Sheriff-elect Ben Wolfinger and Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Wayne Longo earlier this week to discuss existing emergency response plans and review other school safety measures, said Coeur d'Alene School District spokeswoman Laura Rumpler.
"We are trying to create normalcy and safety and routine in the schools," Rumpler said. "As students talk about the tragedy of last week, we are answering questions, helping children feel safe, but we aren't dwelling on it."
Many parents have contacted the district about the situation, expressing a diverse array of opinions on how the district should handle school safety.
"We've been applauded by parents who appreciate our effort to try to create a sense of safety and normalcy for their kids," Rumpler said. "Others said they're keeping their kids home until teachers are armed with guns, and everything in between."
Rumpler said she thinks the school violence rumors have gained more traction among students because Friday is the day the Mayan calendar predicts the world will end. She said that even if the school shooting had not occurred last week in Connecticut, school districts might still be dealing with similar unsubstantiated rumors.
Former Coeur d'Alene School Superintendent David Rawls said, "You can't discount rumors, but on the other hand, you can over-respond."
Rawls, who led the Coeur d'Alene School District from 1997 to 2002, was superintendent of schools in Moses Lake, Wash., in 1996, when an armed student went into one of that district's classrooms and killed a teacher and two students. Another child was seriously injured.
The Moses Lake incident was reported as the nation's first in-classroom shooting, Rawls said.
"We've come a long ways from where we were back in '96," Rawls said.
Those were the days before lockdowns and sophisticated emergency response plans, he said. After that, schools were designed so the main entrances would be visible by office staff, and they started locking all doors except the main one during the school day.
But sometimes even that won't prevent a tragedy, Rawls said. The school in Newtown had a secure front door that a person had to be admitted through to get inside the school. The shooter in Newtown broke a window to get in, he said.
It's hard to stop someone who's "insane, and is willing to commit murder and die in the process" from committing a tragic act, Rawls said.
When he came to work in Coeur d'Alene in 1997, Rawls said the board's direction was on increased school safety. During his tenure they increased the number of evacuation sites and added school resource officers, police officers assigned to the schools. There are now five SROs in Coeur d'Alene. Post Falls has two.
"Look at the increased amount of emphasis on student safety we have today. We, as a community, have said that's important enough that we'll pay for it," Rawls said.
Area schools will remain open on Friday.
Rumpler said they will continue closely monitoring the situation in Coeur d'Alene and remain in constant contact with law enforcement agencies.