KALISPELL — Residents of Flathead County were on edge Thursday after an anonymous threat closed down nearly every school, and false rumors flew on social media about a nonexistent shooting at the Kalispell Center Mall.
School officials decided to keep their doors shut again on Friday after law enforcement officials said the threat — made only hours after a school shooting in Spokane killed one student and injured three others Wednesday — appeared to be credible, said Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Jack Eggensperger.
The decision affects all Flathead County public schools as well as six private schools. Flathead Flathead Valley Community College (including the Lincoln County Campus) also announced it would close Friday.
The decision to close schools again Friday was made following a meeting with nearly all school administrators that if the threat wasn’t terminated and a suspect in custody by 6 p.m. Thursday, the districts would cancel classes and after-school activities, including extra-curricular events where students would have to leave before 10 a.m.
If the situation were to change before 10 a.m. Friday, school officials said they would consider holding extracurricular events scheduled for Friday night and Saturday.
In a letter to parents, the districts wrote: "As you are aware, on Wednesday evening several districts in the Flathead Valley received threats that specifically targeted schools. Local law enforcement and the FBI feel they have a credible threat and they are working diligently to apprehend the suspect."
Schools weren’t the only entities affected by the threats and the fear that followed.
Rumors flew around the Kalispell area late Thursday morning after someone falsely posted on social media there had been a shooting at the Kalispell Center Mall.
Kalispell police did respond to a report of several males carrying large knives at the mall just before 11 a.m.
Kalispell Police Patrol Captain Tim Falkner said it was “just kids acting stupid.”
The youth were carrying long knives, but weren’t breaking any laws. Falkner said the youth were told that considering what was occurring with the school districts today, they needed to remove themselves from the mall.
“They were dressed in hoodies and appeared suspicious in nature,” Falkner said. “They were told to skedaddle.”
After that happened, someone posted on social media that there had been a shooting at the mall and from there the messages got wilder.
“Someone apparently saw us in the mall looking for these individuals and from there it went to that there was a shooting in the mall,” Falkner said.
People started writing messages that indicated the police were looking four to six individuals and there shootings at other locations.
“Someone was typing all this nonsense on social media,” he said.
To make matter worse, there was a trauma symposium for emergency responders at the mall Thursday and people saw an unusual number of emergency vehicles parked outside.
In a news release, the police department said it would communicate with the public if there were any emergencies where the public was at risk.
“People should not become part of the hysteria by forwarding these false threats or calling 911 unless it is something personally observed,” the release stated.
In Whitefish, city officials decided to lock the doors to the city administration building and only allow people inside after they knocked and could be visibly inspected through the glass.
Whitefish City Clerk Michelle Howke said the decision was made by the city manager as a precaution, considering the threats against the schools.