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Officials say they didn't overreact to school threat
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St. Paul's Harding High School was the focus of attention last week, when officials announced a student there was arrested for making threats against students and staff. The threats were found written in his planner. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
After a series of deadly school shootings in recent years, including one in Minnesota, school officials, police and prosecutors say they're not overreacting. They say they've been taking these threats more seriously -- because they can't afford not to.

St. Paul, Minn. — Andrew Deutsch is expected to be sentenced in Ramsey County juvenile court next week for making threats at Harding High School in St. Paul. The 16-year-old pleaded guilty last week to making terroristic threats, after a planner belonging to him was found to contain threats of violence against other students and staff at Harding.

Just last month, Rocori High School in Cold Spring marked a somber anniversary -- the death of two students in a school shooting one year earlier.

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Image William Waterkamp

It's been five years since two students at Columbine High School in Colorado killed a dozen of their classmates and a teacher in one of the most high-profile school shootings in recent memory.

When officials in St. Paul told police about Andrew Deutsch, they say they averted a potential tragedy. William Waterkamp, safety and security administrator for the St. Paul Public Schools, says the Columbine shooting was a turning point for school officials.

"I think Columbine made us begin to look at this and say, 'Take them all seriously.' But they aren't all serious. Let's weed those out, but not miss the ones that are really asking for help," Waterkamp said.

Waterkamp says for the last three years St. Paul has been using a step-by-step process to help determine how serious a threat is, and whether it's a school matter or a police matter. Waterkamp says when he learns of a threat of any kind, he talks to teachers, parents and other students to learn as much as he can about a potentially violent student. He says the goal is to keep the schools safe, and get any troubled student the help he or she needs.

"It doesn't do anybody any good to go down there and just run our students, our children through a juvenile system, and get them deeper and deeper in the criminal justice system, and mass-produce other criminals," he said.

Certainly a felony charge is serious, but keep in mind just how serious this conduct was.
- Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County attorney

Even though Andrew Deustch did not carry out any actual violence, he was charged with a felony.

"Certainly a felony charge is serious, but keep in mind just how serious this conduct was," said Susan Gaertner, the Ramsey County Attorney.

"Many people at the school were understandably very frightened. And we only charge these cases if we have reason to believe that the student meant what he said and that that there was a potential for, down the line, the threat actually being carried out," she said.

Gaertner says prosecutors are bringing charges in these cases more frequently.

"Maybe 20 years ago, we would write things like this off as boys will be boys or girls will be girls. We don't do that anymore," Gaertner said. "Kids need to understand that his kind of behavior will be taken seriously by the system, and there are serious consequences for threatening violence, particularly in a school setting."

The consequences can range from felony charges to no charges -- or something in between. Last Friday, another St. Paul student was arrested. In that case, a 17-year-old Humboldt High School student pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct in connection with writing poetry that referred to guns, suicide and death.

While dark poetry is not necessarily a planned attack, Children's Hospital child psychiatrist Dr. Carri Borchardt says she warns young people that words can be interpreted as threatening, too.

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Image Dr. Carrie Borchardt

"I try to teach kids that threats will be taken seriously. So if you don't mean it, if you're just using the words because you're angry, you need to find other words -- because people are going to listen to it and it will have consequences," she said.

Borchardt says that in the years since the deadly Columbine attack, more kids have been brought in for assessments after making threats. She says the response has been much quicker than in the past.

"I think there are more kids getting attention and treatment around those types of ideas, which I think is a good thing because those are all kids who need intervention. So if we're identifying and treating more kids, I think that's a good thing," she said.

Borchardt says students like Andrew Deustch and the 17-year-old at Humboldt High School will now get help. But, she says, there are lots of troubled kids out who aren't getting attention. And she hopes teachers and other adults will focus on them to prevent any future acts or threats of violence.

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