Updated: Sept. 18, 8 a.m.
School is resuming across the Flathead Valley on Tuesday after law enforcement gathered new information that further indicates the source of last week’s cyber threats is not local.
New information, collected by law enforcement and the Beacon, is coming to light surrounding cyber threats that emerged last week and forced the closure of more than 30 schools and the cancelation of numerous school-related activities through the weekend.
School staff across the Flathead Valley will return Monday, Sept. 18, and classes will resume with students on Tuesday, Sept. 19, administrators said Sunday night. Law enforcement will have a presence on all public school campuses. Student activities and athletics will resume Tuesday.
Flathead Valley Community College will resume all operations at the Kalispell and Libby campuses on Monday. Classes, activities and events will be held as scheduled.
Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry acknowledged Saturday that local law enforcement and the FBI have been communicating with the suspect believed to be responsible for the threats. Every indication is that the individual is not in the area, according to authorities. Investigators continue to make progress in identifying and determining the location of the suspect, Curry said.
“The suspect could, in fact, be behind a keyboard anywhere in the world,” Curry said Sunday night. “All local references in our negotiations with the suspect are easily available online or from already compromised networks. We continue to work tirelessly to determine that location, and fully discredit the threat.”
Parent meetings will be held at various school sites and the time and location of those meetings will be published when they are made available.
Evergreen administrators will host a parent meeting at 1 p.m. on Monday in the East Evergreen Elementary school gym.
In Kalispell, parent meetings will be held Monday at the middle school cafeteria, 2-3 p.m.; Flathead High School, second floor library, 3-4 p.m.; Glacier High School, conference room, 3-4 p.m.; Linderman Education Center gymnasium, 3-4 p.m.; all elementary school gymnasiums or multi-purpose rooms, 4-5 p.m.
In Whitefish, a community information will be held Monday at 7 p.m. inside the Whitefish School District performing arts center.
In Columbia Falls, two information meetings are scheduled, at noon and 6:30 p.m., Monday at the high school.
“The threats against schools launched last week caused disruption to our school communities,” Kalispell School Superintendent Mark Flatau said. “The best law enforcement teams in the country continue to work to resolve this situation.”
Law enforcement officials met with school administrators on Sunday and briefed them on the status of the investigation.
“We advised them we have, to date, discovered nothing other than verbal threats, delivered over the internet, that are crafted to incite fear,” Curry said.
“Again, public safety and the safety of our children remain our paramount concern and focus. In that interest we will be assisting area schools with security assessments tomorrow, and will maintain a law enforcement presence in our schools until we are able to apprehend the suspect, or further discredit the threat.”
Electronic threats were delivered to schools across the valley late Sept. 13 and early Sept. 14. The cyber threats prompted a widespread closure across Flathead County on Sept. 14 and Sept. 15 and impacted roughly 15,700 students. Extra-curricular activities and athletic events were canceled through the weekend.
The situation escalated Saturday after the individual responsible for the threats began contacting families in Columbia Falls. Law enforcement says the suspect breached electronically stored directory information in the Columbia Falls School District and sent threatening electronic messages via text or email to some families of students and staff. The school district has sent out messages to all families warning them of the breach and advising them to contact police as soon as a message is received. People should not reply to the suspect.
The breach compromised student and family contact information, law enforcement said. The threats include specific student names. The threats made against Columbia Falls families are similar to those that arrived earlier this week against schools and school officials.
“They are similar yet more disturbing and personalized,” Curry said.
Curry declined to provide details of the specific threats due to their nature.
The Beacon has also been in communication with the suspect since Friday after the individual contacted the newspaper seeking an interview via electronic message through a secured line. The Beacon contacted law enforcement after receiving the request and later shared details of the conversation in the interest of public safety. Law enforcement confirmed the secure line sent to the Beacon was the suspect’s.
The Beacon is publishing portions of the conversation with the suspect to shed light on the threat and investigation. Much of what the individual stated was extremely graphic in nature, and the Beacon is not going to print a majority of those statements at this time.
Beacon reporter Dillon Tabish along with Editor in Chief Kellyn Brown communicated with the suspect via electronic messages.
“As a journalist I’m compelled to tell you that if this devolves into inflammatory statements or threats, I will not engage in that kind of conversation,” Tabish told the suspect. “Why are you doing this?”
During the course of the conversation, Tabish tried multiple times to understand who the suspect was, where he or she was from, why the individual was making the threats and why they were targeted at area schools.
The individual said on multiple occasions in various ways that he or she intended to kill people in large numbers. The suspect said they were heavily armed with “extensive training.”
“If you know anything about military weapons … it should scare your region,” the person said.
When asked again why he or she was targeting the Flathead Valley, they responded that they wanted to scare people and harm as many people as possible.
“I wanted the public to exist in a state of fear before I make my move. This will allow the government protecting your children to look poorly in the light of the public,” the suspect said.
The individual later elaborated, “The quaint, small, backwoods region of the US like yours is prime hunting grounds. This incident is the last thing you will expect to happen here.”
Tabish asked if the individual was politically motivated, and the individual responded, “My only two purposes are to exterminate human life and smear your government.”
The person expressed pride in the closure of schools, asking, “When was the last time schools were closed this long because of a ‘threat’?”
Tabish asked if there was anything that could be done to change the individual’s mind, and he or she responded, “I might consider an immense donation to my mental health recovery fund. It could fix my mental health issues.”
Tabish asked about the individual’s mental health issues and if they were receiving help.
The individual responded with a threatening statement about murdering people and then added, “Does it sound like I am getting help? Do you think I am foolish? Of course I am not mentally unhealthy. I am of clear mind. I just like to kill people.”
Later in the interview, the suspect asked if the Beacon was going to publish the conversation.
Tabish responded, “I will discuss this with my editor and determine what is relative to our community. We’re not in the business of fear mongering, though. If you want to talk without inflammatory speech, contact me again.”
The individual said if the Beacon was not willing to publish his or her words, they would go to another media outlet.
“That’s your choice,” Tabish responded.
Curry said the suspect has taken “extraordinary measures to conceal his electronic identity and location.” The communications have all been via written electronic messages.
There has been no indication that any other school districts’ data systems were breached, according to law enforcement, and all school districts in the Flathead Valley are taking necessary precaution to ensure that no data breach occurs.
“This person is only trying to gain power and self satisfaction through fear and intimidation,” Columbia Falls police officials said in an announcement Saturday afternoon.
Columbia Falls Police Chief Clint Peters added, “I would also like to commend our community for refusing to be paralyzed by fear and continuing your day to day lives in the face of this threat. The resolve and strength of Columbia Falls is unmatched and it truly makes us proud to serve this city. The law enforcement agencies will continue to investigate every lead, will continue to protect our citizens, and will stand strong around the clock to support our communities.”