AUGUSTA, Ark. – Rumors spread by cell phone text-messaging flew through a school after a student's suicide, rumors that other kids planned to kill themselves, that students planned to bring weapons to school, that there was going to be "a shoot 'em up." Panicked parents rushed to take their children home.
But police and officials at Augusta High School say the panic turned out to be only a way for students to avoid taking semester-ending exams.
"Somebody took advantage of a tragedy that happened in Augusta, a tragedy of a young man taking his life," Superintendent Richard Blevins said. "Somebody exploited that and I guess that made me madder than anything else. Somebody was so insensitive to use that for their own gain."
An existing ban on cell phones at the school will be enforced when the winter break is over.
Bomb threats and disruptions have happened before at the 200-student school in Augusta, in northeastern Arkansas. But police say the proliferation of cellular phones gave electronic-age wings to small-town gossip.
"There's rumor mills in this town like you just cannot believe, because everyone knows everybody. Ninety percent of people is kinfolks with somebody else," police Capt. Jim Moore said. "You get a ripple that spreads like a wave."
Crime is slow in the town of 2,390 people. Police on average respond to one reportable call a day. An evidence-tagged 18-pack of beer still sits on a department desk, labeled as confiscated back in September.
The rumors started Dec. 17 when officers responding to a call found a 16-year-old student hanged at his home.
Late the next day, the sheriff's office received a call from a school official saying some parents were concerned about rumors spreading of threats of a shooting at the school.
On Dec. 19, a Wednesday, police and a sheriff's deputy were at the school as students entered, and school district officials used a handheld metal detector to scan everyone entering the building. They also looked through bags for weapons.
"The only thing we found were cell phones," Blevins said.
After the searches, text-messaged rumors began circulating in earnest.
"They just said there was going to be a shoot 'em up," Moore said. "They was supposed to have been a pact and all this kind of stuff — that there were going to be eight or 10 hang themselves over the holidays."
Panicked parents headed to the campus, and by 10 a.m. only 25 students remained at the 335-pupil elementary school.
Police in nearby Searcy called asking if Augusta police needed help, saying they had a report of a shooting at the school. Ambulances were diverted to the area.
Blevins said the panic was initially spread by students who claimed said they had received threatening text messages.
"Of course, this never happened. It's just more damn rumors," Moore said. "Every kid down there has a cell phone and they just jibber-jabber, jibber-jabber."
On Jan. 7, the first school day of the new year, Blevins said, school staff will institute a zero-tolerance policy on cellular phones. He also plans an investigation into who caused the panic and promises to push for expulsions.
"It's like hollering fire in a crowded theater," Blevins said. "We can't have people doing that."
However, Moore doesn't believe any criminal charges are likely.
"It's all just a rumor," he said.