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'They did not feel our students were in imminent danger'

November 25, 2009 - Brandon Twp.- Tonia Seling says she "flipped out" when her husband Mike, an Oakland County Sheriff's Office deputy and township firefighter, came home and told her that Harvey Swanson Elementary was locked down Nov. 16 and a gun was involved. She later learned that no gun was on the premises, but the school was indeed on lockdown for both Nov. 16 and 17, as was the adjacent H.T. Burt Lifelong Learning Center, where the Brandon Alternative High School is located and where Christopher Thompson, 18, was a student.

Thompson has been arraigned on a charge of making a terrorist threat or false report of terrorism after he threatened to kill all the teachers at the Brandon Alternative High School.

"I don't like the potential that the next time a gun could be involved, or harm could be done to our children next time, because the alternative high school is right there," said Tonia Seling, whose daughter Brandi is a third-grader at Harvey Swanson.

"I think it's too close to the little kids that are defenseless essentially. They are wandering around the halls at lunchtime, who's to say that they wouldn't have done harm to our child? Not to mention that it is quite scary, our daughter was frightened by it. They shouldn't be put in the kind of danger where they are frightened at school."

The Brandon Alternative High School, formerly known as the CHOICES program, moved in to what used to be known as H.T. Burt Elementary School building this school year. Previously, the alternative education program, as well as the Brandon School District's various preschool programs, which also moved into the H.T. Burt facility, were located at the Sherman Lifelong Learning Center, apart from other district buildings. Seling recalls that when she first learned of the move, she was concerned that the alternative high school, which offers smaller class sizes to at-risk students who struggle in the traditional high school setting, would be in such close proximity to an elementary. Now, she feels her fears have been realized.

Superintendent Lorrie McMahon says there is no reason to be concerned. "It was a minor incident as far as the safety of our students," McMahon said.

"Neither us nor the police department believe our students were in any danger, and (the police) are the ones who determine the level of safety. They did not feel our students were in imminent danger. There were threats made against the teachers and that was the concern... I don't have any concerns about the proximity of the elementary next to the alternative high school. We have no plans to change anything at this time."

Oakland County Sheriff's Office Detective Dale Brown, who investigated the case, said on a day-to-day basis, the children in both buildings are safe.

"I wouldn't say having the alternative high school with the preschool and elementary is a concern in general, but because of the nature of the threats, it became a concern in our minds for the safety of the children," he said.

"The (alternative high school) program provided troubled or challenged kids the chance to further their education and is an extremely beneficial program. This one individual (Thompson) is not representative of the majority of the kids who benefit from the program."

The Brandon Alternative High School currently has 57 students enrolled, with three full-time teachers and one part-time physical education teacher. The graduation rate is 20-25 percent. Requirements are the same as for the regular high school.

"Very often (alternative education) students were not comfortable at the high school," said McMahon.

"They want to graduate, but didn't like the high school setting, or it didn't work for them. They could be kids who have had discipline problems. We hold the same standard for them, but in a smaller setting, much of the discipline problems goes away because they aren't struggling to survive." Separating the alternative education students from 122 preschool children in the same building is a set of doors and gates that drop down and lock if the need arises, McMahon said. This did not occur on Nov. 16 and 17, because once Thompson left, all doors accessing the buildings from outside were locked. A letter was sent home to parents notifying them of the lockdown.

"I think the way the school notified us was ridiculous," Seling said. "There were no details regarding the incident, it was very played down. Having a teacher call the police because she feels threatened by a student is not a minor incident." McMahon said communication with the parents is an area the district wants to improve and officials are considering using the Alert Now call system, currently used for notifying parents when there is a snow day, or possibly notifying parents online.

"This is a very rare event," McMahon noted. "As someone said, I'm glad we're not good at this."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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