Threat is treated with proper action By the Yankton Press & Dakotan The sequence of events occurring at Vermillion High School last week were really part of a ghost story. The incident resurrected wounded spirits ranging from the 1999 Columbine massacre to the 9/11 attacks by toying with all the awful possibilities that may be attached to even the flimsiest of threats.
In the Vermillion case, a series of messages � ranging from a large number painted onto a hanging sheet which, elaborately, had sand sewn in its hem to keep it from fluttering; to small notes stuck to restroom mirrors � seemed to suggest a countdown was taking place. One of the small notes made the threat that everyone �was going to die� when the countdown was completed.
Vermillion school officials and local law enforcement responded by locking down the high school, conducting a sweeping search of the facility, then searching every person who came to school last Friday, which was the presumed �zero hour� of the countdown. Not surprisingly, absenteeism that day ran at nearly 80 percent, as many nervous parents chose to keep their kids out of harm�s way, or at least the remote possibility of trouble.
And, also not surprisingly, nothing happened Friday. Nevertheless, officials vow to remain on a state of heightened alert until the mystery of the countdown is resolved.
Did the school officials and law enforcement overreact to the situation? Probably.
But, without 100-percent certainty that the countdown threat was a hoax, did they have the luxury to do otherwise? No.
It�s easy for the rest of us to dismiss such threats as pranks and demand that the school not give the possible pranksters what they want: a dose of chaos. But when it�s your responsibility to safeguard the lives of students, teachers and personnel, there are no such things as pranks until the evidence suggests otherwise.
Yes, the gunshots from the Columbine massacre still reverberate all these years later. After that terrible incident, people looked back to the signs they may have missed and the errors that were made � and what steps could have been done to diffuse such tragedy.
And after 9/11, we�ve become too cognizant of the fact that even the insanely unthinkable can become reality.
So, if Vermillion school officials and law enforcement are accused of overreacting to the threat (or, a series of incidents � which appear to have been done by more than one person � which constituted a possible threat), then so be it. In this age, it�s part of their jobs.
On the same token, those officials cannot and must not be blamed when and if they come down hard on those responsible, even if these events turn out to be harmless, unconnected pranks. No matter the motive, threatening to kill people is serious business. Even if the intent was to scare people and get some laughs out of the reaction, the damage of such threats has been done.
Like school bomb threats, which seem to run in streaks, one suspects there was a copycat element to the Vermillion incident. But until all the facts are known, there is no way of knowing. There is no guarantee. And that�s why school officials, at the very least, erred on the side of aggressive caution: because they had to. With lives possibly on the line, there is no room for mistake.