South Okanagan schools on alert

Student attendance down in Penticton after threatening letter was found at local schools causing a lockdown.

Penticton RCMP officers

Penticton RCMP officers

Student attendance at most, if not all, the schools connected with a threatening letter found Feb. 18 was down, in some cases significantly, on Thursday as a lockdown continued.

Copies of the jumbled, graphic and misspelled letter that were strewn about the grounds of Princess Margaret and Skaha Middle School warned of mass shootings at Penticton Secondary and another at Okanagan Falls Elementary School.

Tavis Hamilton and Bill Beecroft are two 15-year-old Grade 10 students at Princess Margaret who did not attend a full day of classes Feb. 19.

“I think it’s scary honestly and our parents were kind of worried about us so they said just go home and don’t even worry about it, it’s only a day of school,” said Beecroft. “It’s got everyone worried at the school and they’re not thinking straight.

“You never actually think about how serious it is until you’re actually in those people’s shoes.”

His friend agreed: “You hear about this all the time, down in the States and it’s crazy to think that it’s here now.

“I feel like who did this wants help and doesn’t know how to ask for it and that’s kind of why he wrote that note.”

“Many of the parents did phone in just to let us know that they were going to keep their kids home until they heard more about whether the person who had written the note had been apprehended,” said Principal Dave Brunelle of Skaha Lake Middle School. “The kids are engaged and we had maybe one or two kids that asked to go home because they were upset today (Feb. 19) but other than that they are doing well.

“We practise lockdown procedures in case an intruder comes into the school, it’s something we do twice a year just like fire drills. We have practised this and so everyone knew exactly what to do and it’s just running very smoothly.”

About a dozen Penticton RCMP members were working on the case, including the uniformed officers stationed at the four schools.

Feb. 20 is a professional development day in the Penticton district and all the schools will be closed.

Board chair Marleze Tarr of the Okanagan Similkameen School District announced Feb. 19 there would  not be classes at OK Falls Elementary Friday to allow RCMP to concentrate their resources on finding the person(s) responsible.

“We have to take all threats seriously and we have precautions and put them into practice,” said district superintendent Bev Young. “There were quite a few students whose parents chose to keep home today (Feb. 19) at Okanagan Falls. We really wanted to give as much information to them so they could make their own decisions about what they were comfortable with.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’ve worked at secondary schools and we’ve had verbal threats that are dealt with but not an unknown one.”

According to Sgt. Rick Dellebuur at the Penticton RCMP detachment, police have followed up as many leads as they could glean from the letter but none have panned out so far.

“Right now we’ve got about as much information in the letter in front of you as we do,” said Dellebuur. “I think basically we’ve eliminated all of the people who meet that criteria. “Right now we’re taking this one day at a time but how long do you continue this, one month, two months?

“We’re hoping somebody recognizes this letter or saw a copy of it on their printer and says something to us.”

He added if it is a hoax, the sooner that can be determined the better because of the valuable resources the matter is consuming and may make a difference in the consequences.

“At the same time we have to take this very seriously to ensure the safety of everyone around, especially when you look at past events elsewhere.”

Superintendent Wendy Hyer of the Penticton School District said in situations like this, where it may be a hoax, there is a fine balance between student safety and continuing to provide education.

“We have had a couple of threats in the past, where kids have threatened to bomb a school. When we worked with the RCMP and located those kids, they would say it is just a joke,” she said. “Sometimes kids don’t understand the seriousness of the joke they are playing.”

Hyer added it also possible the note was not done by a student.

“Our hope is by next week they (RCMP) will be able to get a credible lead and maybe track down who the threat maker was,” she said. “Otherwise, I would suspect that they will have a presence at the schools again at least Monday morning.”

Readers wishing to view the letter can go to pentictonwesternnews.com. Anyone who can provide any information is asked to contact Penticton RCMP at 250-492-4300 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS.