High school gun scare reveals weaknesses in communication

On Thursday, Oct. 18, the intercom speaker beeped and a message from Principal Jason Wedgbury echoed throughout the school. “School is expected to be a safe place for everyone, and we take that responsibility very seriously. Personally, I want to thank students and staff for stepping forward and helping with yesterday’s investigation. We would like to use the mantra ‘If you see something, say something,’” he said. 

This was the only official announcement on the intercom directly to the student body concerning rumors of a weapon on school grounds that began the day before.

A day prior to the announcement, almost a quarter of the student body — 260 students, out of around the 1,100 total high school students — left school grounds on Wednesday, Oct. 17, due to the incident. 

“I went home because I didn’t know with all of the rumors going around what was true and what was fake,” junior Emerson Green said.  

 At around 9:20 a.m. Wednesday morning, the administration received a report of a potential weapon in the building. Police were called and a student suspect was searched by staff and police within minutes of the report. 

“There has been an uptick of incidents in the past 10 years, but schools are still safe places to be and the news media always cover it more broadly and intensely,” Cedar Falls Police Captain Mike Hayes said. 

In Waterloo a week earlier, a student had threatened Waterloo West High School and Expo Alternative Learning Center High School. All Waterloo high schools were canceled for the day, so when another gun incident emerged a week later at Cedar Falls High School, it left students on edge about the situation. “I heard about the rumors through my classmates during school, and my mom texted me and told me to go home. After what happened at West High School, it was more scary, and I didn’t feel as safe,” junior Emmey Sherbon said.  

No weapon was found at Cedar Falls High School in Wednesday’s investigation; however, a Snapchat message was uncovered and was believed to be the source of the rumor. On social media, various accusations were made in connection to a weapon being in the school, and some of this information spread inaccurate details. 

“I would not have imagined the impact that social media can have with any situation,” Wedgbury said. “It is nearly impossible to keep up with the pace of social media. While this situation was very high with regard to our level of concern, social media and inaccurate information increases the magnitude of the situation.” 

Although a clear line of communication was given to students’ parents, some students still did not feel safe in the school and would have preferred to be in a lockdown where all classroom doors were locked and no one would be allowed to leave. 

“I think that when the school first knew about it, they could have issued a lockdown to make us feel more safe, or at least kept us in our rooms and informed all of the teachers in a better way. Not all teachers communicated to the students,” Green said.  

According to Wedgbury, the administrators had determined that a lockdown was not needed because the suspect and weapon together were safely secured. He said administrators had identified the individual within three to five minutes of that time and had that person already secured here in the office. 

“What was going around made things worse and more embellished, but knowing what I knew, we didn’t need to go into lockdown,” Wedgbury said. “I knew we had the person secured and we had the police here, so it was very thorough and controlled, but social media was going rampant at that point in time.”  

 The email — sent  at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday to parents and staff regarding the situation — was meant to be read to the students in class, but not all teachers communicated the email, which left students wondering what was true or false. 

“My mom was very mad and upset that they did not cancel school,” Sherbon said. “I think that on the day of the incident they would have notified the students as well as parents to make communication equal,” she said. Many parents forwarded the school’s email to their children in the high school.

Wedgbury said he sees the issue as a balancing act about how to get timely and accurate information out. “People want our information immediately, but then they also hold us to a high level of accountability for accurate information,” Wedgbury said. “We did send an email to all staff to share with their classes, but not everyone received the email, and the message was not shared with all students. As a result, we feel we could have been more effective with building-wide communication,” he said. 

The investigation proceeded and students remained in class. Following the first email to the staff and parents, several students and parents came forward to say they had seen or heard about a weapon that was at school on Tuesday but had not reported it. After several more interviews and police involvement, it was determined that a CO2 air gun was at school on Tuesday.

According to Wedgbury, the individual was removed from the building and brought to the police station to continue the investigation. It was there that police discovered the CO2 gun was not on school grounds on Wednesday, but the CO2 gun was in the building Tuesday. “Evidently, it was in a backpack and seen at school, and people knew that it was there,” Wedgbury said. “ I didn’t feel like we could just brush that information under the rug and say, ‘Hey, we know it was a rumor today, but yesterday this was real,’” he said.  

The new discovery from the investigation prompted a second communication to parents around 12:50 p.m. on Wednesday that all was safe at Cedar Falls High School. 

The second email sent to parents reiterated the school’s policy for dealing with a weapon in school. “We encourage our students to say something if they see something. If needed, additional updates will be sent to parents. Again, safety and security of our students are of our utmost concern,” the message stated.  

“The best way students can do something is if they see something on social media or see it in real life they need to report it because students are the first source usually and need to be responsible for that,” Hayes said. 

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