Expert: School districts should always report suspicious activity

Authorities can track reported threats

Expert School districts should always report suspicious activity

COLUMBIA, Mo. - The Columbia Public Schools District has investigated three reportedly suspicious incidents within the last few weeks.

In a few instances, a suspicious person or vehicle has been spotted at a school. Monday, investigators looked into a threatening message written in the bathroom at Rock Bridge High School.

The message was deemed not credible by authorities. The suspicious person, Kelvin Joe, was cited with a ticket for trespassing. Columbia police said cause was not found for a harsher punishment in that case.

Paul Fennewald, an authority in school safety, said when school districts come across anything suspicious, as innocuous as it may seem, it should be reported.

"I think if there's any kind of an inkling, they should have the relationship with their law enforcement that they trust law enforcement to do the right thing," he said.

Fennewald said law enforcement often has more resources and tools to do things like background checks on suspicious people, like Joe. They and the school can then document who they are just in case their behavior escalates down the road.

"At the time, it may seem like it’s a noncredible threat," said Fennewald. "But if law enforcement would document, and then later on that person gets involved, or the individual does some other behaviors that’s along the same lines, it moves towards that credible threat type thing."

Callaway County Sheriff Clay Chism said he considers all school threats legitimate and credible until proven otherwise.

"Just like any other investigation, deputies will work to substantiate the information given to them and build upon that information accordingly," he wrote in an email. "Ultimately, law enforcement administrators have to work closely with prosecutors and juvenile authorities to best determine if and what charges should ensue."

Fennewald, who has a background in law enforcement and is the former Homeland Security Coordinator, said law enforcement would rather investigate something and deem it not credible, then miss a tip that really is credible.

CPS spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said the district follows the same process when it comes to safety and security regardless of the credibility of the incident, which is why police were contacted about the Rock Bridge message. 

She said parents were notified of the incident Monday, and that it was not a credible threat.

Fennewald said schools should be transparent with families about incidents when appropriate, but that it's important not to overreact. If so, districts can become desensitized to real threats.

Gov. Mike Parson has asked a task force, of which Fennewald is a member, to gather information on how to better equip schools safety-wise.

They're holding public hearings throughout the state. The next gather in mid-Missouri is May 16 in Jefferson City.

You can also provide input online here.

The task force will get the recommendations to Parson by the end of July.

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