Skyline High School closes for day due to online shooting threat
September 25, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
Skyline High School closed Sept. 20, after a still-unidentified online bulletin board user threatened to unleash a Columbine-style attack and shoot students on campus.
Issaquah School District administrators characterized the decision to close the Sammamish school as a precaution, and the school reopened Sept. 21, albeit at a later time and as extra police officers, parent volunteers and counselors greeted students.
Principal Lisa Hechtman said about 56 percent of students attended school Sept. 21. Overall, Skyline claims about 2,000 students in ninth through 12th grades.
The decision to close Skyline for a day rattled the tight school community and spurred a far-reaching investigation encompassing local and federal authorities.
Investigators spent the days after the discovery attempting to pinpoint the user behind the threat posted Sept. 19 on the online bulletin board 4chan. Police cannot verify whether the threat came from a Skyline student or anybody in the area, despite several interviews and a forensic investigation by the King County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI.
Police traced the post to a proxy server in Sweden — a common technique to mask computer users’ identities — and hit a dead end.
Officials said Skyline and other schools did not receive additional threats after the 4chan post.
Still, other Issaquah School District campuses tightened security and canceled outdoor activities Sept. 20 in response to the threat. Eastside Catholic High School — a parochial school less than a mile north of Skyline along 228th Avenue — closed Sept. 21 as administrators reviewed security procedures.
In the 4chan post, the user outlined plans to take his or her father’s Erma sub-machine gun and “open fire on the people in the commons” until law enforcement officers killed the shooter, or until he or she ran out of ammunition.
The post made a specific reference to “jocks” as “the biggest offender” and also said “the people at that school use their wealth and social status to act superior to others.”
The user also included a photo purporting to show the sub-machine gun, although police later said the image is traceable to a classified advertisement and did not appear to be original.
In a news conference at Sammamish City Hall on Sept. 20, King County Sheriff Steve Strachan said the photo is familiar to law enforcement agencies.
‘We’ve followed every single lead’
The threat against Skyline is similar to a 4chan post about a planned shooting at Lynnwood’s Meadowdale High School in April. Officials closed Meadowdale to students April 13 in response to the threat, but police never identified the perpetrator.
Investigators received more than 100 phone calls late Sept. 19 from people referring to the Skyline post — including callers from Canada and from as far away as Pennsylvania.
“We’ve followed every single lead the public has provided and none have led to a suspect,” Sammamish Police Administrative Sgt. Jessica Sullivan said. “If people think they know who might be responsible for this we’d like to hear from them.”
Officials decided late Sept. 19 to close school the next day, and parents received calls and emails just before midnight.
“This is always one of the hardest situations to deal with. You take it as seriously as you possibly can but with social media, that kind of stuff is easy to put out there,” district spokeswoman Sara Niegowski said late Sept. 19.
The decision reverberated on other school campuses.
Eastlake High School — in the neighboring Lake Washington School District but about a mile north from Skyline along 228th Avenue — increased security Sept. 20.
Eastlake administrators locked all doors except the main entrance, Lake Washington School District spokeswoman Kathryn Reith said.
Issaquah Police Cmdr. Scott Behrbaum said the agency increased the number of officers in the student-packed area near Issaquah High, Issaquah Middle, Clark Elementary and Tiger Mountain Community High schools in downtown Issaquah, but the Issaquah Police Department did not receive information about potential threats to the schools.
“Our intent on that is to provide that sense of security to the students and parents that are associated with the high school,” he said.
‘Err on the side of caution’
Michael Dorn, a school safety consultant based in Macon, Ga., credited Issaquah School District officials for quick efforts to notify parents. (Dorn’s company, Safe Havens International, has advised more than 2,000 schools around the globe, including schools in Washington state.)
“That type of communication is imperative. I just think it’s the right thing to do in many cases,” he said. “There are situations where you could interfere with the investigation to make that kind of notification, but in most instances, that is what we would recommend and what we consider a very proactive measure.”
Nationwide, school administrators started responding more seriously to threats of violence after a spate of shootings on school campuses in the late 1990s, especially the April 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School.
“I think most people these days would agree to err on the side of caution,” Dorn said.
The rise of social media changed how such threats occur — and how school administrators and students respond to possible violence.
“The cyber aspect has made it much more challenging for schools. It used to be the telephone call and the note pasted on a bathroom stall,” Dorn said. “Now we are seeing a lot more use of technology and it can be, sometimes, more difficult. A lot of these individuals are caught and are arrested.”
Dorn said the reference to a specific firearm in the 4chan post could aid investigators in the search for the user.
“Threats are very common — those have increased,” Dorn said. “I’ve been in this field for 33 years now. The actual number of attacks is down, particularly the homicide rate.”
The technology involved, however, can further obscure a user’s identity and whereabouts.
“Just like we used to do with bomb threat calls, they’ll stay on it, track it down and find the person,” Dorn said. “The big disadvantage we have today is that it’s a lot easier to be in Eastern Europe and Asia or the Middle East, and communicate a threat to the state of Washington.”
Managing Editor Kathleen R. Merrill, reporters Caleb Heeringa and Lillian O’Rorke, and photographer Greg Farrar contributed to this report.