NORTH POLE, Alaska – The arrests of six boys accused of planning a campus massacre has gripped this small Alaska town with an unsettling epiphany — if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
"We thought we were in a bubble," said Cindy Slingerland as she waited outside the school with her husband, Mark, for their 13-year-old daughter, Jenny. "Nothing ever happens here. This is by far the biggest scare for my children."
The town of North Pole, dubbed Santa Claus' headquarters, has a main road called Santa Claus Lane where light poles are curved and striped like candy canes. Main attractions include Santa Claus House, a Christmas theme store open year round. The town is also a destination for thousands of letters sent to Santa each Christmas.
The seventh-graders, all around 13 years old, are suspected of scheming to take guns and knives to the town's middle school and kill students they felt picked on them as well as teachers they did not like. Police say the boys planned to knock out the school's power and telephone systems, giving them time for the slayings, then escape from the town of 1,600 about 14 miles (23 kilometers) southeast of Fairbanks.
The six were arrested Saturday and could face charges of first-degree conspiracy to commit murder. Authorities found weapons in the boys' homes, said Mayor Jeff Jacobson.
"I was shocked and then heartbroken," Jacobson said during a lunch break in his classroom Monday. "I saw one of them led away in handcuffs, this little boy."
North Pole parents and students were not alone in their fear this week.
In three other small American towns — in Kansas, Washington and Mississippi — residents were feeling the same gut-wrenching blow as children were arrested in suspect plots on their classmates and teachers.
Five boys in Riverton, Kansas, were charged Monday with threatening to carry out a shooting spree at their high school on the seventh anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre last week.
In Mississippi, two Pearl Junior High School students were arrested Sunday night and charged with making threatening statements about classmates on the popular teen Web site Xanga and warning students not to go to school on May 1.
In Puyallup, Washington, a 16-year-old was charged Monday in an alleged plot to shoot people at his high school. In an instant message to a fellow student, the teen wrote about an attack and suicide "to finally go out in a blaze of hatred and fury, sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said.
In at least three of the alleged plots, authorities found weapons and ammunition in suspects' homes. In Washington, the search of Brian Michael Evans' home turned up a homemade bomb and a CD with instructions for making explosives, as well, Troyer said.
For Alaskans, the arrests in North Pole jogged memories of another school plot that succeeded.
In 1997, Evan Ramsey opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun as students assembled in a high school lobby, killing a principal and 16-year-old classmate in Bethel, a southwestern Alaska town of 6,000. Ramsey, then 16, is now serving a 198-year prison term.
In North Pole, nine other students, including at least one girl, were suspended for withholding information. They will not be allowed to return to school until authorities have completed their investigation.
Authorities have said a child told a parent that rumors were circulating about a plot, and the parent went to police.
School officials on Monday tried to assure parents their children were safe, stressing that no weapons were ever found on campus or in the nearby woods. A police officer patrolled the halls and extra counselors were brought in to help students.
"It has been surprisingly calm," said Wayne Gerke, an assistant superintendent with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
Adults, perhaps, are having a tougher time shaking the anxiety than their children. The students initially reacted with fear, but by Monday streamed out of the school entrance, giggling and elbowing each other.
"I feel fine, I feel safe," 14-year-old Cabe Harris said as he climbed into the front seat next to his mother Jo Harris. "This is a nice place."