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Jefferson High principal addresses students to ease fears in wake of suicide at school

Teacher, student describe 'tense,' 'somber' mood in the halls

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CEDAR RAPIDS — As rumors spread in the wake of a student’s suicide at Jefferson High last week, Principal Chuck McDonnell assured students during an afternoon announcement Tuesday that neither the police nor the school district believe the student was a threat to anyone but himself.

“The District takes seriously any threat or rumor of threat to the safety and security of students and staff, and investigates in collaboration with law enforcement,” McDonnell told students around 1 p.m. “Again, there is no evidence of any specific, credible threat to students and staff at Jefferson.”

Cedar Rapids police officers responded to the high school, 1243 20th St. SW, just before 8 a.m. Friday for a report of a shooting. A 15-year-old boy was found behind the Jefferson auditorium, suffering from a gunshot wound. He was taken to a Cedar Rapids hospital before being transferred to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, where he died Saturday.

In his announcement, McDonnell addressed rumors that have circulated among Jefferson students and parents since Friday. He said there is no evidence to suggest the student entered the school with the gun that morning, that he “ever shared any plan to hurt himself or others with any staff member” or that anyone else was involved.

McDonnell confirmed a video taken by a student walking through the halls of Jefferson High was filmed by the 15-year-old boy. The video was uploaded to a YouTube channel that includes recordings of video game depictions of school shootings.

“I can confirm that the video you may have seen showing the inside of our school was recorded on Tuesday, Sept. 6,” McDonnell said. “He recorded it alone; no one else was involved.”

Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said police are continuing to investigate the death of the teen and that investigation includes looking at his activities online.

“We’re looking at YouTube videos, as well as social media posts and comments people are making related to the incident,” Buelow said. “As we’ve said before, the police department investigation at this point has found the 15-year-old who took his life was the only one who was involved in this incident.”

Buelow stressed several times during an interview Tuesday that “no specific, credible threat” to Jefferson High School has been found.

According to police, the boy was found with one gun in his possession. The weapon found with the teenager is believed to have come from his home.

Additional officers have been dispatched to the school in the days following the incident, Buelow said.

Despite the extra police presence, things appeared normal outside of the school on Tuesday. Derrek Simmons, a 17-year-old Jefferson student, said he has not noticed anything different at school since classes resumed on Monday.

Elizabeth Thompson, 17, said students have taken on a somber mood.

“In the hallways, it’s been quiet all the time, which is really weird,” Thompson said. “Normally, it’s loud and everyone is talking to each other, but nobody’s really talking in the hallways or at lunch.

“That’s a really weird atmosphere.”

Language Arts teacher Tim Preston said Friday’s incident — and the rumors that followed — have left some students and staff rattled.

“It’s been pretty tense,” Preston said. “Everyone has done a great job of rallying together, but there’s just a lot of commotion and rumors. We’re trying to do what’s best so everyone feels as safe as we believe they are.”

Rumors about the student’s intentions have left some students feeling unsafe, he said, and staff in the school are trying to help students work through those feelings without fueling gossip.

“Anything that kids are hearing, they’re automatically going to — ‘Oh gosh, what bad might happen next?’ ” Preston said. “ ... We know that we’re safe, we know administration is doing everything they can, we know the police force is there to take care of us. It’s just a tough situation.”

Before McDonnell’s afternoon announcement to students and staff, he shared similar information with parents via email and an automated phone call around 10 a.m.

“We need to focus our attention on caring for one another and healing,” McDonnell told students Tuesday. “Our entire J-Hawk community is hurting, and we also need to remember that one of our families is suffering the greatest pain imaginable.”

Buelow encouraged anyone with “specific or credible” information related to the incident to contact the police department at (319) 286-5491.

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