The Free Press, Mankato, MN


March 20, 2013

School shooting hoax reminds of the past

September 1997 came back to me as I took the phone call Wednesday morning: "Possible school shooting at New Prague."

As our news editor had called in sick, I jumped into having to do real work again. I found longtime reporter Tim Krohn as the only reporter in the newsroom, (lucky him) and dispatched him with phone and camera to New Prague.

I began monitoring the wires and other Internet news sources, posting bits and pieces of the news as it came across our news wire from the Associated Press. We had snippets on Twitter as soon as we could. We posted a short version of the Associated Press story on our website.

First confirmed news was that school officials said the New Prague middle school had been locked down in a "code red" - the most serious situation - but there was no information on shots fired, a shooter or any one injured. Another early report had ambulances setting up a staging area near the school.

As I continued to check the wire for updates, I would relay those to Krohn, who had about a half hour to 40 minute drive to New Prague.

By this time all lines into New Prague schools or authorities were busy.

I checked Twitter by searching the term "New Prague" and came up with mostly news sources again, giving me much of what we already had. I believe the Star Tribune had a report on Twitter that said there was indeed a 911 call that reported an "active shooter," that the caller needed help and that two were injured.

The AP soon had that information, but it was important to note it was just that they had a 911 call and there was no confirmation otherwise about injuries or shootings. In fact, officials from the school were soon quoted as saying everyone was safe.

That's when the story started to change. By the time Krohn arrived at the scene, the incident and 911 call was being confirmed by authorities as a hoax and "prank."

A busy morning and I had a little time to take a breather. When you're involved in these breaking news events, you tend to start to remember other similar events.

The one that comes to mind happened in September, 1997. I remember taking a similar call and finding reporter Mark Fischenich about the only reporter in the newsroom, making him the default shooting reporter.

The incident unfortunately was not a hoax. Le Seuer High School officials had been warned of a possible threat, had indeed locked down the school, but somehow the sophomore - described as a runaway - making the threats got in and went into a bathroom. In an attempt to pursue and arrest, Sgt. Tom Nelson  was shot, with the bullet luckily only grazing his skull.

He recovered and the student was tried and later convicted.

That shooting happened before school shootings became so seemingly common. It happened before Facebook and Twitter became venues for news from witnesses and second and third hand sources.

And since the Newtown,Conn. shootings in December, all media tend to be on heightened alert. Hence the barrage of TV satellite trucks and others who descended on New Prague Wednesday.

It is important to get a story like this right. There was clear potential for putting out a lot of news before anything was confirmed. It's a lesson we have to learn over and over again.

Everything could be a false alarm and everything could be real.

You have to wait for confirmation from credible sources and not get to excited about competition that doesn't have that confirmation but goes ahead anyway.



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