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Fire alarm sparks pandemonium following perceived threat

Freshman Emma Cutter, Sophomore Leo Jackson and Campus Supervisor Ralph Lewis stroll through the “dark hallway” in the upper floor of the A-wing at Bear River High School. The fire alarm in the foreground was recently pulled. Photo by Taylor Wohlgemuth

A series of unfortunate events led to the dramatic scene on Wednesday, February 28, at Bear River High School.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on February 14 increased tensions at schools across the country, so when Bear River’s principal Dr. Amy Besler sent out an all-call to parents regarding a perceived safety threat Tuesday night, rumors started flying. On Wednesday morning, during the passing period before first period, the fire alarm went off. This created turmoil among confused and scared students, especially because many teachers were at a board meeting, leaving substitutes in their stead.

Bruins described their initial reaction to the alarm.

“I was in Ms. Weir’s room, and we had a sub,” said Senior Natalie Hubacz. “We were in AP Environmental Science… but our sub wasn’t in the classroom, so we were all … very confused. We just locked the door [and] closed the blinds.”

Multiple students said that there was confusion about whether the alarm was for a fire or a lockdown.

“I felt like no one knew what it was,” said Freshman Katelin Johnson. “… is it a fire alarm, is it a lock down, are we supposed to stay in here, are we supposed to go to the football fields, or the Ag lot, and I didn’t know.”

Others said that while they knew what was going on, teacher and peer confusion caused a mess.

“The fire alarm went off in the morning right as I got to school and everyone’s just sprinting around into classrooms,” said Senior Stephanie Merrill. “It was chaos. Teachers didn’t even know what to do either, and a lot of teachers were going into lock down.”

“I knew it was a fire alarm,” said Senior Itzel Reyna. “But like, everyone ran inside because they were paranoid because of the threat.”

Dr. Besler explained the supposed safety threat that caused the initial tensions.

“This student made a strange statement to a peer who had grabbed his cell phone,” she said regarding the origin of concern. “The statement had nothing to do with killing that peer or anyone else. The Sheriff’s Department responded to this report and visited the home multiple times. There are no weapons in the home and the Sheriff’s Department [is] … very confident that there is no threat to the student body.”

After the all-call was sent out, Bruins took to the internet to investigate for themselves. Some Bruins found the Facebook page of the student’s father, and became worried, however, Dr. Besler said that this had already been investigated, and was no cause for concern.

“Many people have expressed concerns about Facebook posts/photos related to this student and his family members,” she said. “There is one photo of this student holding a gun, which was taken three years ago. Of course, many families in our area own weapons and shoot them recreationally.”

She went on to explain that the multitude of pictures of the student and family members holding weapons was a result of a sort of post-apocalyptic role playing game they participate in.

“The family is involved in something called ‘Wasteland Weekend,’ which are gatherings of people who are essentially playing like it’s the end of the world,” Dr. Besler explained. “… The ‘weapons’ and other items related to these events are props — there are no actual weapons or ammunition involved.”

Despite Dr. Besler’s thorough explanation, over 160 students chose to leave school early and 123 people did not attend school at all that day (though not all those absences are in relation to the fire alarm) because they were still shaken by the possibility of danger.

“Even if nothing’s happening, it’s still scary,” said Pippyn Carney, a junior.

Students who did not attend school explained their reasoning and emotions.

“We showed up to school and we heard the fire alarm going off and I was like okay well this is exactly what happened in Florida,” said Carney.  “The kid pulled the fire alarm and now I heard the fire alarm … so we just turned around and left.”

“I didn’t go to school because I was just kinda freaked out, and it was a sketchy situation,” said Aubree Knox, a senior.

Other students explained why they felt safe enough to stay.

“I would say I was concerned, I wasn’t really scared,” said Senior Lukas Brodie. “I think the school handled it pretty well. The way that Mrs. Besler emailed everybody and let all the parents and the students know what was going on as much as she could, I felt pretty safe.”

Merrill said that she didn’t put much stock in gossip.

“A lot of it is rumors that are going around that were just was blown out of proportion,” she said.  “A lot of people were spreading that there was a school shooter threat, but that was never actually a thing.”

In both cases, students said that considering the recent events in Florida, fire and lockdown procedures need to be reevaluated. Staff members said that they agreed.

“Some parents and students have asked questions about fire alarms v. lock down alarms,” Dr. Besler said. “We absolutely have distinctly different notifications for each of these very different circumstances … The evacuation/fire alarm is a repeating tone. The lock down is a voice that comes over the system which repeats a message that our school is in lock down and everyone needs to follow lock down procedures. We specifically implemented this new system this year to help alleviate the issue of people getting the two tones mixed up.”

Dr. Besler went on to say that both of these procedures have been practiced multiple times this year, and that she thinks that the confusion and panic was simply the result of recent events and rumors.  

“This being the case, we recognize the need to reevaluate our procedures, especially for evacuation,” she said. “We are investigating ideas and are thinking one option might be having folks wait, after hearing a fire/evacuation alarm, for verbal confirmation over the intercom that they should, in fact, evacuate, as, often, it is a pulled alarm or some other kind of false alarm/non-emergency … There are many factors in these decisions … but we are looking at some different options.”

She also said that she is interested in all the concerns and suggestions of students.

“I spent my day with our kids,” she said on Wednesday. “I was in every single classroom and talked to countless kids about the situation and listened to their thoughts, concerns, and ideas. During my Funky Fresh Dance Moves Bruin Time, instead of dancing, I invited any other Bruin Time classes to join us to discuss these issues … Students asked clarifying questions to try to separate fact from the rumors they were hearing. We also talked a lot about safety drills and procedures, alarms and tones, and that sort of thing.”

Dr. Besler said that the staff is working hard to find solutions for these problems, and will have a staff meeting next Tuesday to discuss how they can improve their procedures and responses. She said that they are also working to put together a South County information night and an afternoon or evening session for Bear River parents about school safety plans, our relatively new camera system, and whatever else the community wants to know.

As a final note, Dr. Besler said that she wishes we didn’t have to worry about this sort of thing, but that she recognizes that it is a scary reality.

“It devastates me that our kids have to even think about something like school shootings,” she said in her email to parents Wednesday afternoon. “I wish I could take that fear and anxiety away, but, unfortunately, I know that it is the time in which we are living. … We sure do love them all and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate the support of our families. Hugs to all of you. Tomorrow is going to be a much better day!”

-Desirae Kreiter, Jaden Watson, Bella Christmon, and Annabelle Owyoung contributed to this report

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Fire alarm sparks pandemonium following perceived threat