AS IF frustration levels weren’t high enough in the Hammarskjold High School community, a meeting to discuss a series of violent threats that had closed or locked down the Thunder Bay school 10 times in the past two months was cancelled Thursday when an 11th threat was received. Police must take all such threats seriously and the long-awaited meeting has been put off indefinitely.
Students, teachers and parents were anxious for answers to a pattern of anonymous behaviour that has stymied authorities and seen reaction grow from amusement among students when the first threat gave them the day off to anger and apoplexy among parents forced to scramble to make arrangements for sons and daughters suddenly out of school.
Police have been studiously silent on their investigation which has only added to the mystery, exasperation and resentment against whomever is responsible for a series of events that is without parallel in local history. Thunder Bay police are notoriously tight-lipped on any of their investigations and without knowing why they have so far refused to share many details, let alone theories, the school community is left to wonder what’s been done to bring an end to this increasingly audacious conduct.
Someone or some people for some reason decided to disrupt life at Hammarskjold and with police so far unable to track them down, it appears they have turned this into a test of wills and of the ability of authorities to grapple with a vile prank that now threatens the quality of learning in this school year for hundreds of students.
Ironically, as education watchers in Ontario express concern over the government’s plans to expand the use of online courses in high school — perhaps as part of its plan to cut teacher positions and increase class sizes — Hammarskjold is preparing to post lessons online so that students don’t fall farther behind in a school year that has been disrupted for well over a week’s class time.
What is behind this weird war of attrition? Perhaps it is retribution for some action taken by or at the school — a disciplinary matter or bullying by some student or students against another. Is it a cry for help?
Perhaps copy-cats are now in the mix. A second high school, Superior, was the victim of a threat this week. Not to mention elementary schools around Hammarskjold that have been locked or shut down each time out of a necessary abundance of caution.
The perpetrator may have mental health issues or simply see this is a lark without appreciating how deeply if affects so many people. The school has found it prudent to make counselling available to students who may be worried about what might happen if these threats of violence are carried out. The shocking consequences of too many American cases of school shootings cannot be far from some minds.
Thankfully, the free and easy U.S. gun culture is absent in this country. But why doesn’t Canada get serious about non-sporting firearms? Less than one week after a white supremacist killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on military assault-style weapons and a royal commission into the tragedy. That is leadership. No matter how many times mass shooters mow down innocents, American lawmakers remain afraid to challenge the gun lobby in a country that mistakes a constitutional amendment as the right for anyone to bear any and all arms. That it hasn’t come to that in Canada is no reason to shirk the duty to get the worst firearms out of public hands.
The prevailing question at Hammarskjold is why haven’t police been able to find whomever keeps telling them that shootings or bombings will occur at the north side school. Unfortunately, even as modern technology enables experts to track some electronic footprints, others remain a mystery because anonymous messaging apps can hide identities and locations.
The internet and social media usually play a significant role in these threats. It’s easy for people to conceive and make them. Young people are exposed to more dark and violent information than were older generations.
No doubt the city police cyber-crime unit has been working overtime on this case. The fact that they have so far been unable to crack it suggests either a very cagey individual or an app that precludes their discovery.
There does exist the very real possibility that someone, somewhere is making these threats unbeknownst to those in the same location. Authorities commonly advise parents to make themselves aware of what their children are doing online. But some parents or guardians are nowhere near as tech savvy as the kids in their care and may be entirely unaware of what might be going on under their own roof.
Just as likely is the probability that someone knows something. A pattern of extended behaviour that has the entire community wondering about it may be seen as a big success by whomever is behind it, and that person may be unable to resist bragging about it. If someone is aware of or suspects something they should not view telling a teacher or police as getting an acquaintance in trouble. Rather, they should see it as doing the right thing when the right thing is long overdue.
Perhaps a reward that has grown to around $12,000 will loosen someone’s lips. That contributions have moved beyond the school board is testament to the seriousness with which a growing number of people take this situation. Anyone with information is asked to contact a dedicated Thunder Bay police tip line at 684-5001.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.
(Originally published April 13, 2019)