Portage Northern campus shuts down after shooting threat

Only two days after Kalamazoo Public Schools were targeted with bombing and shooting threats, Portage Public Schools received a threat of their own. At 12:20 am on Tuesday, November 12th, a threat to shoot the lower level commons of Portage Northern was posted by Facebook user ‘John Gabonn’. This post was removed by 12:30 am, but not before numerous PPS students and parents sent screenshots of the threat to the administration. Immediately, administration and Portage Public Safety investigators began work to determine if the threat was credible or not, and at 5:01 am, teachers received an email notification that the entirety of Northern’s campus would be shut down for Tuesday. This included PNHS, PNMS, PCEC, and Curious Kids. By 5:30 am, calls to parents began, and by 5:45, the news was up on WWMT Newschannel 3. At 6:00 am, WWMT mistakenly announced all of PPS would be closed, causing confusion for concerned parents, but this mistake was fixed by 6:15 am and school continued as usual in the rest of the district while the threat investigation continued. School resumed for all PPS students the following day with an added police presence district-wide.

Schools are well-prepared to deal with threats in the current age of school violence. “The first thing the administration does when faced with this type of situation is to assess the validity of the threat. In some cases, the origins of the threat are easy to track down and they can quickly tell if there is any level of seriousness. In some cases, they have to spend time figuring out where it came from before they can look into the how valid it is,” says Officer Brannon Pierman, the School Resource Officer for PNHS and North Campus. “To find the people that post the threats there is a mixture of field interviews with people who see or share the posts to determine where they were finding it, and computer work to determine where the post came from. The location of the computer or device where the threat was originally posted can be found through the "digital fingerprint" of the device used to make the post. Everything that gets posted on the internet and social media can generally be tracked back to where it came from based on the device's internet connection.”

Two arrests of high-school age children have been made in conjunction with the threats in KPS, but no arrests have been made yet for the PPS threatener. Administration believes at the time of this printing that it was a copycat threat. The John Gabonn Facebook account has been deleted multiple times and resurfaced with different spellings, which is a strong component to the copycat theory, in addition to the fact that Parchment High School also received a similar threat. “This is giving the authorities the impression that of a copycat situation and not actionable and thus the determination to return to school today,” teachers read in a scripted message from the NHS administrative team to first hour classes when school resumed on Wednesday, November 13.

The threat quickly circulated through numerous social media accounts to spread the word.

Even if the threat was not malicious, it will still carry serious consequences for the poster: According to the KPS press release, the punishment of a terrorist threat is “a felony punishable by imprisonment up to 20 years or a fine of not more than $20,000 or both.”

Most teachers and students agree that this situation was just a student trying to follow the lead of the first threat to Loy Norrix and get a day off of school. “These high school threats are typically not authentic,” says North Middle School teacher Ahren Kaylor, whose building was also closed down as it was a part of North Campus. “Most people with a plan make it happen without warning. And this is a copycat from KPS. Loy Norrix had a social media threat Monday. So, when we heard this it seemed fishy.” Student Senate Vice President Kennedi Stinnette agrees. “I think that whoever posted the threat only did it since they saw Norrix got school off when they received a threat,” she says. “Once I started thinking about it more, I realized that if someone was really going to harm the school, then they wouldn’t post it on social media because they’d easily get caught.”

While it was easier to feel calm the day after, the morning of the threat, parents expressed concern for the safety of their children. “Credible or not - not risking my kids by sending them to the schools left open today. Not going to be kids that determine whether your threat is valid” commented Roxie Hallam on Facebook. Her post was one of three hundred and sixty addressing the situation that morning.

Kalamazoo Public Schools tweeted at 6:33 AM on Tuesday that “student absences will be excused if parents choose to keep children home,” but PPS offered no such measure. NMS parent Stephanie Peace questioned why PPS didn’t offer the same option. “My question, though, for PPS, is why Portage parents weren’t offered the option to keep our students home, as an excused, called-in absence, as the investigation is still ongoing? That was a thoughtful option that KPS gave families,” she says. Other PPS parents, like Kaylor, felt confident sending their students to school: “I didn't think about it too much really,” he says. “I trust the system.”

Students were also shaken at the news. “I was concerned but I knew that the police were working as hard as they could to find who he was and apprehend the threat,” says senior Nathan Kipp. Student Senate President Scotty Fargo felt the same emotions. “I was worried for the safety of our students,” he says, “and just taken aback that something like this would happen in Portage.”

Some students even chose to eat lunch in teachers’ classrooms their first day back. One of these students was sophomore Mia Pelligrini. “Because of the shooter threat the day before, we asked Mrs. Friedman if we could eat lunch in her room,” she says. “Even though we knew it was safe, we still didn’t feel comfortable eating in the Lower Commons, since that was where the threat was directed. Even though it was technically safe, it was still scary, and we felt safer in her room.”

PPS and local law enforcement are working hard to ensure the safety of students throughout the district. “We will continue to work cooperatively with the Portage Police Department to identify and hold responsible individuals associated with this false threat,” says principal Jim French. “In this situation and others, our best resource for addressing potential threats is you, our students.” In line with ALICE active shooter protocols, the school encourages students to use the Ok2Say app or number (1-855-565-2729) if they see or hear anything suspicious.

Stay tuned to Northern Light News for follow up information as this story develops.

Article by Astrid Code, Brianna Neuhouser, Malcolm Gaynor, Liam Fagan, and Komalpreet Kaur