Published Online: May 7, 1997

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Bomb Threats, Real and Imagined, Increasingly Disrupting School Time

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When bomb threats recently forced officials in Ocean Springs, Miss., to evacuate schools for the fourth time in two days, it wasn't just teachers and administrators who were annoyed by the disruptions.

"A lot of the students were pretty distressed that someone had placed this imposition on them," said Dewey Herring, the superintendent of the 4,600-student district. "It's no thrill to stand outside for an hour."

Ocean Springs is one of many districts nationwide that have been barraged with bomb threats this school year. In some places, student-made explosive devices have been found on campus. Most of the time, as was the case in Ocean Springs last month, the threats are just pranks.

But even those cause problems, officials say. Because it's difficult to know when a threat might be real, school officials say they have no choice but to react with seriousness each time they receive one. That usually means pulling students out of classes.

"You just can't risk keeping kids and staff inside," said Christopher Cason, the spokesman for the 240,000-student Prince George's County, Md., district. "You have to treat each one like the real thing."

Schools in Prince George's, a suburb of Washington, have received at least 120 bomb threats this school year. Students at one high school had to be evacuated three times in one day.

"It was like a revolving door," Mr. Cason said. "The instructional process for that day was just destroyed."

He added: "I think the whole school system has moved beyond [the feeling of] frustration to anger, to the enough-is-enough stage. We have zero tolerance now."

Real Dangers

Not all of the threats are unfounded.

In Prince George's County, four homemade explosive devices have been discovered on school grounds this school year. School officials were not alerted ahead of time to the devices, which were reported by students or school staff.

A county judge ruled last week that a 15-year-old student was involved in placing one of the bombs. The student faces a maximum penalty of confinement in a detention center until age 21.

Elsewhere, homemade pipe bombs were found this spring in the lockers of students in Ohio and Michigan.

And in Los Angeles County, Calif., police are investigating two homemade explosive devices found recently at two schools in the Glendale district. The bomb found at the district's Rosemont Middle School last month was made out of sealed cartridges, gunpowder, and a fuse, said Lt. Thomas E. Spencer, the bomb-squad commander for the county police department.

"It was powerful enough to kill a human being," he said. "If you had it in your hand, it could have blown your hand off."

The FBI Bomb Center and other organizations do not track nationwide statistics on explosives in schools. But some officials worry that increased access to information about bombs, especially through the Internet, is making it easier for students to build them.

"We continue to have clear evidence that young people are learning how to make the bombs on the Internet," said Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

One on-line document, "The Anarchists' Cookbook," explains how to build bombs from household products, such as tennis balls and baby-food jars, and even includes a chapter titled "Do Ya Hate School."

But other law-enforcement officials downplay the role of the global computer network. Information now available on-line, they say, was easily found in libraries and on television in the past.

"I don't think you can make the Internet out to be the demon in this," said Lt. Ron Wilkerson, the spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Copycats

One of the most frustrating problems for school officials is that bomb threats often occur in waves.

Schools in Alexandria, Va., hadn't received any threats until last month. Then they got eight during one week, said Amy Bertsch, a spokeswoman for the city police department.

"They just kind of fed off each other," Ms. Bertsch said.

Threats frequently are triggered by news reports of other threats or actual bombings, such as occurred in Oklahoma City in 1995 and at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Mr. Cason of Prince George's County said.

"The images are there," he said. "People see this and they get ideas, and they want to implement those ideas."

In Manlius, N.Y., last year, police arrested three 13-year-olds for plotting to blow up a junior high school with a bomb patterned after the one used against the federal building in Oklahoma City. A combination of fertilizer and diesel fuel, the bomb could have destroyed much of the school if it had been detonated, police Capt. William Bleyle said.

"It would have, at the very least, caused a fire, which could have been just as destructive as an explosion," Capt. Bleyle said.

The students were referred to a family court and later pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Two of the students were put on probation and a third was sent to a juvenile center for one year, said Karen Bleskoski, the county's deputy attorney. School officials expelled all three students for one year, she said.

'Not a Game'

Since spring break at the end of March, schools in Prince George's County have received only a handful of bomb threats.

"The novelty sort of died out," Mr. Cason said.

But Mr. Cason added that the drop-off also can be attributed to an awareness campaign that district officials launched this spring.

Officials hung posters in school hallways and created a video, "This is Not a Game," to publicize the charges that are filed against those connected with bomb threats or discoveries. The Maryland district also added a new section to its code of student conduct that requires secondary school principals to request expulsion for any student connected with a bombing incident.

In addition, the district installed a phone system used to trace bomb-threat calls.

Finally, the school system held a press conference with local law-enforcement and public-safety officials to discuss the rash of bomb incidents and "to send home the message that this is something that affects us all," Mr. Cason said.

"All you can do is educate people on the consequences," he said. "As for controlling it, it's uncontrollable. You just have to hope it doesn't happen."

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