Rumor of gun violence cancels Effingham pep rally

Some students and parents gather outside of Effingham High School Friday afternoon. Students were released with their parents after a rumor of a gun threat during a scheduled pep rally Friday. Dawn Schabbing photo

A rumor of gun violence that spread quickly on social media caused officials to cancel a pep rally at Effingham High School on Friday afternoon. Some students were dismissed early at the request of their parents.

The pep assembly scheduled for 2:25 p.m. Friday was for the Flaming Hearts football team, which advances to the third round of the playoffs this weekend.

The game will be played at 2 p.m. Saturday in Effingham as scheduled, according to Unit 40 Superintendent Mark Doan. The "Meet the Hearts" rally for girls basketball was also still scheduled for Friday at 6 p.m. at the school.

Effingham Police Chief Jeff Fuesting said the school district learned of the threat immediately following lunch hour, and officials called authorities right away. Fuesting said that after an initial investigation, he did not find the threat to be credible.

The chief would not detail the nature of the threat, nor how it was communicated. But he noted that it was not made on social media.

Rumors about it, however, quickly spread on social media and some parents arrived at the school to take their children home. They gathered at the EHS parking lot in the chilly air, preparing to exit the grounds. Some of the parents were already there, to be recognized as "Football Moms" during the rally.

“You had to be called down by your parents, in order to leave early,” said Matthew Hites, a senior football player. “The rumor was there would be a shooting during the pep assembly and the football players and cheerleaders would be targeted.”

Hites said the students were kept inside classroom with the doors shut, unless a parent came to pick them up.

Alexa Evans, a sophomore at EHS who has a brother who is a senior football player, said students were instructed to stay inside their classrooms with the doors closed.

“It was done for precaution,” said Evans. “It was more of a rumor.”

Her mother, Angie Evans, said part of the program was to recognize the senior football players and Football Moms were invited to attend.

Jill Wohltman, another parent, said the rumor spread rapidly after another mom became concerned about the rumor and posted it to Facebook.

“It just got out of control from there,” said Wohltman.

“My cousin from South Carolina called me, asking where I was at,” said Natasha Hites, a parent of Matthew Hites. “They saw it on social media. We were all here for the Football Moms part. We've all got our senior moms shirts on.”

Fuesting said several high school across the country received similar threats. He said he and other police officers spoke with faculty, staff and students at the school, and they will continue to follow up on the matter.

In a release from Unit 40, Doan said the district is working with Effingham City Police after learning about the possible threat from early Friday afternoon.

"At this time, it has been determined there is no credible threats to students, staff or the building," Doan said in the statement.

Fuesting encouraged anyone with credible information to contact the police department.

Contact Dawn Schabbing at dawn.schabbing@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151, ext 138; or Kaitlin Cordes at kaitlin.cordes@effinghamdailynews.com 217-347-7151, ext. 132.

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