The Hays USD 489 superintendent shouldered the responsibility for the lack of communication regarding a threat made by a student against the school earlier this month, and he and the board president offered apologies to the community and assurance the district has plans and training for an active-shooter situation.
After Superintendent John Thissen and board President Lance Bickel made their statements, parents who came to the meeting decided not to speak during the public comment section and said they were satisfied with what they heard.
At the opening of Monday’s meeting, Bickle suggested a change to the agenda, switching the district’s Best of the Best student and teacher award presentations and the superintendent’s report before the audience participation, which usually comes before those items on the agenda. The board unanimously agreed to the change.
In his report, Thissen read a prepared statement outlining the events of the week of Feb. 12. That morning, the Hays Police Department came to the high school as part of an investigation of a possible threat made toward the school.
The student, a 14-year-old male, was taken out of class and questioned.
“The front end of the investigation confirmed the threat, and the source of the threat was contained,” Thissen said.
That happened within an hour of HPD's arrival at the school.
The boy was taken into protective custody, and a child in need of care order was obtained by the Ellis County attorney.
Other students were interviewed in the course of the HPD investigation, which, combined with the Florida school shooting Feb. 14, might have spawned rumors the next two days of continued threat and a gun being brought to the high school, Thissen said.
On Feb. 17, the chief of police, county attorney and Thissen met and agreed upon a statement that was released that morning by the Ellis County Attorney’s Office.
“The Hays Police Department, judicial representatives and building administration did an exceptional job throughout the process,” Thissen said.
“It is I who could have limited the heightened fear by sending out a simple informative note on Monday or Tuesday. Florida’s tragic event on Wednesday still may have amplified concern, but at least no one would feel that the threat in Hays was not being addressed.
“I am sorry for the fear and anxiety that developed due to this, and I am sorry that the board of education was subject to great negativity when they had nothing to do with it other than trusting in my judgment and performance.”
After concluding the prepared remarks, Thissen offered additional comments.
“There were things that happened that week that really made me question the process as to how to and when to inform the public,” he said.
He again praised the HPD and Ellis County District Court for the handling of the situation.
“The piece that was missing was a note that went out to the public. And that would have been mine. I am the public relations person for the school district,” he said.
“I promise to the board and to the public to do a better job,” he said.
Bickle then gave his remarks. He was the only board member to speak on the subject.
“I want to simply say I’m sorry. We screwed up,” Bickle said. “And while I applaud John for explaining things and shouldering the blame, this was by no means just John. We as a district failed the community on many levels. Period. There are no excuses.
“I think we failed our students, our staff, our parents. And I want to personally apologize if we gave anybody any reason to doubt or give any reason to lose faith in the district or that trust.
“Trust is a hard thing to get. It’s super easy to lose. But it’s tough to rebuild that trust, and I think we have a road ahead of us to do that.
“While I can’t do anything to change anything that happened, what I can do is promise you one thing, that things are going to be handled differently in the future.
“I just wanted to personally apologize to the community that we as a district failed you. It will not happen again,” Bickle concluded.
Thissen’s prepared remarks also outlined the district’s preparedness for situations like an active shooter, something a group of parents had said they wanted answers to in a letter they wrote and sent to Thissen and the board members late last week.
“They addressed every point that we brought up. Whether they brought up those points based on what we wrote them, I don’t know,” said Robin Hale, adding it didn’t make a difference if the letter was the incentive.
She said she hoped the discussion of those concerns will continue.
“The main thing is they acknowledged they made a mistake at the beginning,” Rhonda Keener said.
Carrie Simpson-Voth and Todd Voth said it was clear the board and superintendent listened and took parents’ concerns into consideration.
“I think there will be steps taken forward, which is what we wanted,” Simpson-Voth said.
"I'm glad my daughter was there to see people in power humble themselves and admit they made mistakes and could have handled it better," Damon Arial said.
Thissen said the district has a crisis committee that meets three times a year and includes representatives of the Hays fire and police departments, Homeland Security, and school secretaries, principals, custodians and food service staff.
Last year, that crisis team was expanded to include the private Catholic schools in the community, Thissen said in his follow-up comments. The week of Feb. 12, two representatives of each educational system attended a week-long training session in designing crisis strategies, he said.
“The crisis plan was recently updated, and a summary sheet of the plan is in print form on all teachers’ desks,” Thissen said.
Thissen mentioned other crisis preparedness plans in place or in the works for the district:
• Buildings have only the front doors unlocked during the school day, and one elementary and the middle school have their front entrances locked with a “buzz-in” system. It’s possible all schools will transition to the “buzz-in” system during the summer.
• Crisis kits were placed in each classroom last year.
• Locks are being switched out throughout the district.
There also are programs for the students designed to help students feel more connected to the school, Thissen said, including:
• An at-risk program designed to increase graduation rates.
• Anti-bullying activities.
• A social worker added to district staff and an additional counselor position for next year.
• Discussion of how to expand Westside Alternative School.
• High Plains Mental Health has offered to train 30 employees in the county’s schools in mental health first aid.
“Focus is being placed on connecting every student to their school by participation in sports, clubs or co-curricular activities. Engaged students are healthier students,” Thissen said.