Forest Lake Area High School’s homecoming festivities were disrupted last week as a threat shut down a virtual scavenger hunt and caused many students to stay home from school. Threatening messages posted on Goose Chase, an app used by students for a homecoming-related scavenger hunt, raised alarm among students and parents on Wednesday, Sept. 25. Screenshots of the posted threats on the app seemed to suggest a threat to the school, with one circulated picture reading, “I have nothing to live for. This is the best way for me to go down. Down with everyone else.”
Forest Lake Area Schools Superintendent Steve Massey was alerted to the messages shortly after they were posted and immediately called the Forest Lake Police Department to investigate. Police contacted the student whose name matched the username tag on the app and determined that the student did not write the posts. Police Captain Greg Weiss said police quickly determined the threats as non-credible based on a variety of factors. Besides the knowledge that the poster shared them under a false name, he said, they were posted on an app that was being frequented by a large percentage of students. That action seemed engineered to cause fear and increase caution the following day at the school, which he pointed out is not the way someone intending to commit a large scale violent act at a location would typically act. Though the threats were not believed to be credible, the school district worked with police to have a heightened police presence at the high school and Forest Lake Area Middle School for the rest of the week.“We received word almost immediately from FLPD that they did not feel the threats were credible. We take their lead, as well as our own information and knowledge of the situation. Their guidance was is that they did not feel this was a credible threat, and given that guidance and that lead, we felt it was appropriate to continue to hold school,” Massey said.
The Goose Chase smartphone app was being utilized by the high school for a photo scavenger hunt in coordination with homecoming festivities The app has two different access levels: one that is open for anyone to join, and one accessed by a pre-set code. Those who have the code can join the game but must set up their name and profile by themselves. Prior to homecoming week, FLAHS students were each emailed an entry code to access the scavenger hunt, with each grade being assigned their own code. Weiss said that those who log on to the app pick an identifying tag of their choosing. The person who made the threats created a tag identifying themselves as another student. Police worked with the developers of the Goose Chase and caught the student they believe is responsible for making the threats around 10 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 27, just hours before the homecoming pep rally took place. An email to parents on Friday said that the person who made the threats is no longer in the school. The person is a juvenile and therefore was kept anonymous by law enforcement, though Weiss did report the alleged culprit was booked for making violent threats and disorderly conduct.
Weiss told The Times it was regrettable the way the posts and subsequent rumors spread like wildfire across social media, sometimes exaggerating the scope or circumstances of the threats. At one point, he said, before police knew the identity of the alleged culprit, there was a social media rumor that police did know who was behind it and that they were engaged in some sort of manhunt.
“That is absolutely false,” he said of this rumor.
Some parents were frustrated over what they considered as a lack of information and poor communication in the aftermath of the threats. Massey said that communication was given no later than 6:30 a.m. on Thursday to every principal across the district and said the district communicated as often and with as much information as it could throughout the investigation.
“We’re limited in what we can say, and I know that that’s frustrating, but we have to honor the investigative process and data privacy,” Massey said. “We felt as we started school on Thursday that it was safe to hold school. Withstanding that, parents always have the choice of keeping their kids home. We’re going to work with the parent.”
Massey also noted that the new safe and secure entrance system at the high school is huge upgrade to security, noting that in the past, each door would have to be locked by hand. Now, all the doors are locked by default.
“Unfortunately there are moments of vulnerability in any public building,” Massey said. “But we are far more secure than we have been in the past and other schools, and that gives me a large degree of assurance that we are providing a high degree of safety and security for kids in our schools.”
Though schools across the district remained open on Thursday and Friday, Massey said roughly 150 parents across the district opted to keep their children home from classes on Thursday, and a number more students decided to leave school in the middle of the day. Both groups of students will have an excused absence for the day.
Curtis and Beth Rebelein agreed that there were too many unknowns and that it was safer to keep their three kids, one each in high school, middle school, and elementary school, home for the day.
“With the number of investigations I’ve gone through, with the risk factors and how this all this works, it’s just better to keep my kids home,” said Curtis, who has worked in the security industry for 30 years.
“It’s one day off of school. If nothing happens, and we hope and pray that it doesn’t, I can get my kids caught up,” Beth said. Beth also noted that while last week’s threat was a unique instance, every day she sends her kids off on the bus there is always a small fear.
Chris and Linda Soderlind also discussed the pros and cons of attending school on the 26th with their freshman son, Isaac. They were nervous, but Linda said their strong faith helped them decide that Isaac would still attend. Isaac said that the added police presence helped ease his fears.
“Some kids seemed nervous, but I wasn’t that much. I was being watchful,” Isaac said.
The sentiment was also shared by Tia Houseman, whose two sons are in ninth and sixth grades. Before they attended school on Thursday, she talked with them about being aware of their surroundings and letting somebody know if something didn’t seem right.
“It was a little bit nerve-wracking trying to make the decision, but at the same time, we knew police were involved, and they said that there wasn’t a major threat,” Houseman said. “I do definitely feel like it’s something you think about every day as your kids go to school. It’s important to give them a hug and tell hem every day because you don’t know.”
Wyoming City Councilwoman Claire Luger said that while her daughters did attend school, she had to have a conversation with them beforehand, one she said had to happen due to the national trend of gun violence.
“It was an appalling conversation to have with my kids,” she said. “To have to point out that three extra police vehicles [are] in the back parking lot, and drive home my point to say, ‘Look, it’s safe, and we’ve upped the law enforcement.’ No parent should have to have a percentage of a doubt that would be an unsafe situation. That was my anger for the morning. I think it’s heart-breaking for parents to have to even consider. We’ve been able to kind of function with a ‘Yeah, but it’s not in my community’ perspective, and now I think it’s hit home just a little bit harder, regardless if it was just a hoax, where we have to really evaluate why this is happening.”
Superintendent Steve Massey said it’s a concern he shares.
“The potential of a threat or violence in the school are things that keep every superintendent up at night. It’s a reality of our times, and it’s incumbent upon us to learn everything we can to provide all the measures we can to provide a safe place for our kids to go to school,” Massey said.
- Ryan Howard contributed to this story.