Sequim School District leaders have set a special meeting to address safety concerns at local schools after threatening messages were found on two exterior walls at Helen Haller Elementary and on three windows at Sequim Middle School on Sunday, Sept. 4.
Families and staff have been invited to the Sequim High School library, 601 N. Sequim Ave., from 6-7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14.
“It is important that our families and staff have an opportunity to hear more about the events, our investigative process and plans to address safety concerns. Attendees who wish to address particular concerns will be able to sign up for the opportunity,” Sequim schools superintendent Regan Nickels said in an email to parents last week.
Sequim Police Department officers last week were investigating graffiti and damage at Helen Haller Elementary School and Sequim Middle School that include swastikas and a reference to a school shooting.
One message at Helen Haller, written underneath a broken window, read “be ready” next to a swastika.
Another painted message read “Sandy hook 2” — in an apparent reference to the Dec. 14, 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Hill said on Sept. 6 that there was similar messaging at the nearby Sequim Middle School campus.
“It looks related; [it’s the] same color [of] paints,” Hill said. “By all indications it’s related.”
The graffiti at Helen Haller had been removed before the first day of school (Sept. 7).
“Communications immediately began regarding facts of the discovery and evaluation of the messages between school administration, central office leadership and local law enforcement,” Nickels said in an email on Sept. 6.
“In a summary meeting today and after review of evidence collected thus far, it has been decided that school will reopen tomorrow (Wednesday, Sept. 7) across the district with an increased law enforcement presence at and around all of our campuses out of an abundance of caution.”
In a follow-up email to student families on Sept. 12, Nickels wrote that the school district’s safety team is assessing district-wide safety procedures and protocols, and that exterior doors have been directed to be locked on our campuses. She also noted that surveillance cameras slated for capital projects funding in the years to come have been reassessed for more immediate implementation.
Law enforcement officials were reviewing footage from cameras in the area last week, Hill said.
Det. Sgt. Darrell Nelson said in a phone interview on Sept. 9 that the investigations are being handled by one investigator as they believe the graffiti is related.
“We’re taking it very seriously,” he said.
“School resource officer Kyle Resser is actively working on that case and there have been some interviews.
“We’re evaluating all forms of evidence, including video.”
Nelson said he would not comment on if they have suspects or not.
There were no incidents related to the graffiti or hate crime during the first week of school, he said.
Sequim Police staff said they collectively had as many as 12 uniformed officers, including those from other agencies, on school campuses at various times last week.
Nelson said they will not continue to that same level of policing, but will continue a “frequent focused patrol effort in and around school properties,” and focus on other safety issues such as speeding.
Sgt. Dave Campbell said in a Sept. 8 phone interview that there was graffiti on a resident’s fence near the schools, but it appears to be from a week prior.
A few downtown Sequim businesses were tagged, too, he said.
Graffiti in Sequim is not unusual, Campbell said, but hate crimes and symbols are “disturbing and unusual.”
Hill said the language used in the graffiti could be construed to be a hate crime.
“Even if it wasn’t some obvious evidence [of a hate crime], there are still other crimes associated with [the graffiti],” Hill said.
In an email from Hill on Sept. 6, he noted, “There have been recent incidents of graffiti at the [school] campus, but none involved threats.”
About 470 students are expected to attend classes at Helen Haller Elementary this school year, in kindergarten-fifth grade. The district expects about 535 students to attend Sequim Middle School in 2022-2023.
“All threats to our school or students are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly,” Nickels said in the Sept. 6 email. “We want you to have the facts so you can purposefully discuss them with your child and emphasize the seriousness of this issue.
“The theme of ‘If you see something, say something’ is critical here. If you discover anything that can assist in the continued investigation, please contact us at school or the superintendent’s office immediately.
Those with concerns or questions are encouraged to call the Sequim School District central office at 360-582-3260 or email Nickels at firstname.lastname@example.org, the superintendent said.
Anonymous information can also be submitted through the superintendent’s office or Sequim Police Department (360-683-7227 or email@example.com), she said.
Sept. 12 email
District officials initially declined to release specifics abut the graffiti. Nickels addressed parent/guardian concerns in another email to student families on Sept. 12.
“Communication has been limited for a number of reasons. However, it is clear that families expect more on a daily basis from the district about facts, procedures, next steps and intentions. I have heard you and this is the first communication of the week to provide just that,” Nickels wrote.
“Another major concern was the lack of release of specific threat language and/or photos in the district’s announcement of the graffiti issue. Parents have expressed that becoming aware of the threat language through social media or on the news, rather than directly from the district, led to immediate concerns about district transparency. The reason that the threat language was not released by the district was in attempt to preserve details that could aid the investigation.
“However, this decision, while well-intentioned, impacted parents’ ability to make an earlier decision about whether or not they would want to send their children to school. For some it also led to a diminished trust in the district. I regret both of these outcomes and recognize the specific threat language was an essential piece of information for parents to make informed decisions.”
Resser, the school resource officer, will maintain a presence on campus, Nickels wrote, and police routine patrols continue throughout the day and night.
“One significant improvement has been the quiet campus shift that has taken place at night,” Nickels wrote. “The police patrols have improved the situation significantly in a short time.”
Reporter Matthew Nash contributed to this report. He has family employed and enrolled in Sequim School District.