Terror threats unsettle small-town hoops tourney
BENSON, Minn. — In small towns, there is no more communal place than the high school gym, where hundreds of people gather on numerous occasions to enjoy games, concerts, proms and graduations.
It's typically the site of great fun, with the worst that can happen is the local squad loses a game or you spill a Coke on your team sweatshirt.
But on Friday evening, Dec. 15, four west-central Minnesota communities were struck by the reality that the school gym can also be a threat target and that terroristic threats are not just sobering concerns reserved for residents of faraway cities.
Benson High School's annual Case IH boys basketball tournament was halted with a game in progress and a gym full of people was quickly evacuated after law enforcement discovered alleged terror threats made against the school by a suspect via social media.
The suspect was tracked down and apprehended some distance from the school and the public was never in danger, thanks to what school officials and others at the tournament said was quick and efficient work by Benson police, sheriff's departments in two counties and the Minnesota State Patrol.
But the incident had a chilling effect.
"You hear about it on the news in cities all over the country, but it's crazy when you see it up close," said MACCRAY head coach Tyler Anderson, whose team was playing Breckenridge when the game was halted just before 7 p.m. on Friday. "It hits close to home when you're part of it."
Benson Activities Director Shannon Schmidt and other school officials were notified by Benson Chief of Police Ian Hodge about direct terroristic threats against the school after the first tournament game started at 6 p.m.
The game continued while officials assessed the situation.
Law enforcement was confident it would locate and apprehend the suspect far from the school, but Hodge urged the evacuation as a precaution, Schmidt said.
A second tournament game between Benson and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday was also canceled.
"Law enforcement had a good idea where (the suspect) was and (the suspect) was not in the vicinity," Schmidt said. "But if they couldn't get (the suspect) by a certain time or a certain distance from the school, they wanted to evacuate for safety reasons."
At 6:55 p.m., Schmidt and Hodge had the game stopped, and they informed the crowd that, while a danger was not imminent, people needed to gather their belongings and exit the school by the front entrance. The evacuation proceeded without incident, Schmidt said.
"We wanted to be proactive," Schmidt said. "Obviously, we've never been in this situation before, but law enforcement handled it great. Everyone (in the crowd) was calm about it. They knew the police had a good handle on the situation. I don't know if a situation like this can ever go well, but everyone handled it really well."
When informed their game was stopped, MACCRAY's Anderson said the teams' players shook hands and exited the court. His players were not particularly worried about the unique end to their evening.
"We heard that the suspect was quite a ways away and knew about all the police that were here," Anderson said. "They all handled it well."
Because of the highly visible increase in police presence around the school campus and the ubiquity of social media and text messaging, word spread quickly. Schmidt said she was receiving inquiries from fellow ADs at other school districts even as the evacuation was in progress.
Wendell Kienitz was in Benson on Friday to watch his son Brady, a MACCRAY freshman guard, and his Wolverines teammates play in the tournament. He was back to attend the rescheduled games on Saturday.
"(Schmidt) and the police chief came in (on Friday) and said there was no immediate threat but that we should grab our stuff and get out," Kienitz said. "I guess it didn't surprise me. I thought it had to be a bomb or a gun thing. We heard there were a lot of cops stopping cars blocks away, so we weren't too concerned."
As for the ways of the world in 2017, Kienitz was unfazed.
"It's not what it used to be," he said.
Saturday's revamped slate of five C-squad, junior varsity and varsity games were contested without incident. ACGC defeated MACCRAY 81-59 in the first game and Breckenridge beat Benson 88-36 in the second game Saturday night.
The ACGC and MACCRAY varsity teams played at 6 p.m. and Breckenridge and Benson played the second game Saturday evening.
"Smooth and uneventful," Schmidt said, with a laugh, " just the way we like it."
She said school officials were thankful for law enforcement's professional and measured response to the situation on Friday.
"Everyone worked well together," Schmidt said. "Chief Hodge came in and said, 'Here's what we need to do.' They had a great plan and that aided in everyone being calm. All those drills we do for something like this, you take it seriously because you know it can happen anywhere."