The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 25, 2013

Misinformation hampers probe of school threat

EBENSBURG — As the investigation continues into a written threat found on a bathroom wall at Central Cambria High School, Cambria Township police said they’re questioning students who may be able to provide new information and wading through rumors swirling around social media sites and among the Central Cambria student body.

The message was plain, yet vague.

“There were two words,” said Cambria Township police Chief Mark Westrick: “School shooting – 5/3/13.

“Is that a direct threat toward anybody? No.”

But Westrick said that’s no cause to downplay potential dangers and uncovering the identity of the culprit to ensure future student safety is the main priority. As authorities work from video footage recorded near the bathroom where the threat was found Tuesday morning, Westrick said the high school is currently compiling a list of students in the vicinity that day.

Westrick said officials can only speculate on the motive in this situation. May 3 is the day before prom – as such, students are barred from attending if they miss school days leading up to the dance.

“Maybe they’re trying to make it difficult for people to go because they want to stay home,” he said.

Although Westrick seemed confident against an impending threat of action, he said law enforcement will always err on the side of caution.

“Do I take this seriously? Absolutely I do. I have a child there. I’m not just going to blow this off,” he said.

Calls made Wednesday to Cambria Township police regarded Westrick as unable to provide commentary on the investigation, as he would be out of the office for about a week. Westrick reached out to The Tribune-Democrat after Thursday’s published article, citing he’d never received contact information for the reporter, although it was left with the officer-on-duty.

In Westrick’s absence, Cambria Township police Officers Nathan Stohon and James Melnyk will be following up on investigative leads. Ebensburg Borough and Jackson Township will be providing added support during peak traffic hours, such as morning drop-offs and after school lets out.

“We are going to continue to do that as much as possible for the remainder of the school year and from this point on,” Westrick said. “Not only does that help with situations like that but it also builds a rapport with students and staff.

“I also have reached out to the Pennsylvania State Police for assistance and they are going to provide some extra patrols,” he said, adding that after the events in Newtown, Conn., state police have been trying to make “pass-throughs” at many schools in the state, on the lookout for anything suspicious.

Much of the information coming from Central Cambria School District on Wednesday was certainly suspicious.

Parents spoke among themselves – going from information gathered from their children – and middle school students claimed to have been provided little to no context during a midday assembly that detailed the situation.

Misinformation spread through the social media sphere before authorities were ever alerted, leading to webs of false details – like the existence of a “hit list” that named middle school students.

Westrick said situations like that are “disappointing” and can cripple the investigative process.

“The problem with an investigation like this is the rumors,” he said. “With Facebook and (other social media), things get twisted around.”

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