Student's suspected 'hit list' prompts Falmouth probe, tests police, school, parents

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FALMOUTH — What was initially a frightening moment for a family, some students, a school and a community, became a lesson in being prepared for the worst and reacting quickly.

Three weeks ago a 15-year-old Falmouth High School student’s parents discovered the boy had written a list of names in his school notebook.

“A student did make out a list of names that included some current students, fictitious names, and (pop music icon) Justin Bieber,” Falmouth High School Principal Gregg Palmer said on Nov. 17. “These were names of people with whom the student expressed frustration that was based on age appropriate feelings specifically around friendship.”

The student’s parents immediately called the school.

“Any time you see a list of names, it pushes all the buttons,” said Falmouth Police Lt. John Kilbride, who investigated the incident.

Kilbride said the parents were concerned their son had created a “hit list.” The school called the police, who launched a threat assessment and investigation.

“I met with the parents and the young man,” Kilbride said. “He said he’d been told, when he feels anger, to write down a list of names (of people) he’s angry with.”

Kilbride said there was no indication the boy had plans to hurt anyone, or that he had the means to act on his anger in a violent way.

But, for Police Department and the School Department, this was an exercise in threat assessment at a time when school violence has become frighteningly common place.

“We did everything we could. We did a threat assessment, but this never went beyond his writing names down,” Kilbride said.

“There was no history of violence or other significantly disruptive behavior, and after a close look at the situation and in conjunction with Falmouth PD it was established there was no threat,” Palmer said.

The school, police and parents cooperated to react to the incident quickly, Kilbride said. The school sent letters to the parents of all the students on the list, to explain what had happened and who had created the list.

The incident attracted even more attention after John Wilson, whose daughter attends the school, attempted to ask School Board members about it at a Nov. 15 meeting. He was told board policy prohibits discussion of specific students during public comment, and his speaking time was terminated before he could ask all this questions.

School Board Chairwoman Analiese Larson said the policy is clear, and that Wilson’s concern was an administrative issue, not an issue for the board.

During the meeting, Superintendent Barbara Powers encouraged Wilson to contact her if he is not satisfied with the school principal’s response to the incident.

“All of these things around students are handled in a sensitive way,” Larson said. “There are walls protecting students.”

She said that she had not heard about the incident before Wilson brought it up at the meeting.

“I had three parents call me, but as soon as they found out (the boy’s) parents were cooperating and involved, they weren’t as worried,” Kilbride said last week.

He said Monday that over the weekend, a few more parents were in touch, curious about the situation.

“We’re charged with fully investigating any potential situation that could represent a disruption in the school. We always involve law enforcement when that disruption could in any way contain a possible threat of force, involves prohibitive substances, or otherwise might cross the line into the juvenile criminal code,” Palmer said.

The School Department has a policy on student discipline and a specific policy on weapons, threats and bullying, which outline what is prohibited and how a student is disciplined if he or she breaks those rules.

In this case, however, no rules were broken and no one was disciplined.

The Police Department is no longer investigating the incident, and Kilbride said he is comfortable that the boy has a strong support system at home and in his friends.

“We take everything like this as serious as it can be,” Kilbride said. “I was very pleased with how, in a situation like this, the school, police and parents all worked together. I was very pleased with that triangle of cooperation.”

Palmer was also happy with the outcome.

“What I’ve learned is that Falmouth has a tremendous degree of cooperation between the school system, police, and other town agencies,” he said. “The degree to which parents on all sides of an issue step up and make sure everybody is safe and supportive is unique to this place.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

This report was updated on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011.

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