‘Copycat’ Incidents Disrupt Schools, Districts

By Kerry A. White — May 05, 1999 3 min read

In the aftermath of the Colorado school shootings, administrators nationwide dealt last week with a rash of bomb scares, prank phone calls, and other threats that forced widespread disruptions in normal classroom routines.

Since the April 20 attack that left 15 dead at Columbine High School near Denver, hundreds of students in dozens of states have been reprimanded, suspended, or arrested for offenses ranging from dark jokes and phony threats to apparent plots involving explosives or guns.

The most serious such “copycat” incident, meanwhile, was in Canada. On April 28, a 14-year-old boy shot two 17-year-old students at a high school in Taber, Alberta, about an hour’s drive north of the Montana border, authorities said.

One victim was killed and the other was seriously wounded, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The youth was charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder.

In the United States, few of the incidents resulted in violence, but they forced cautious officials in many cases to evacuate, and even close, schools.

“Chaos” is how Joseph F. Canataro, a Deptford, N.J., principal, described the situation after someone phoned in a bomb threat to his school outside Philadelphia the morning of April 26. “A whole day and nothing got done,” he said.

After a three-hour police sweep, officials eventually sent Deptford Township High School’s 1,000 students home for the day. A former student eventually confessed to making the false threat, Mr. Canataro said.

Like other administrators made edgy by the Colorado shootings, the principal said he would continue to interpret all such warnings as the real thing until learning otherwise.

‘Terrible Hoax’

From Hawaii to Montana to Florida, schools logged hundreds of bomb warnings.

Twice last week, students in the District of Columbia filed onto parking lots and playgrounds while police and school officials searched their schools.

The first incident, on April 26, forced evacuations and the subsequent cancellation of classes at all the city’s 19 senior high schools. The next day, another call forced all of Washington’s roughly 150 schools to send students home.

The threats were “a terrible hoax,” said Vernell Jessie, the director of public engagement for the 72,000-student system. “We’re ready to get back on task.”

In Wimberley, Texas, four 8th grade boys were being detained last week for what authorities say was an elaborate plan to attack their central Texas junior high school with homemade bombs. Authorities are considering formal criminal charges against the youths, said Hays County Sheriff Don Montague.

Almost all of Wimberley Junior High School’s 400 students returned to school late last week, said David Simmons, the superintendent of the 1,600-student Wimberley Independent School District.

‘Sad and Mad Enough’

Experts on adolescent behavior emphasized that only a tiny proportion of young people are troubled enough or angry enough to actually concoct schemes to harm their schools and classmates. But the intensive news coverage of school shootings over the past year and a half--especially the compelling footage from Columbine High School--resonates with some of those who do stray.

“Young people respond to what they absorb in the media,” said Bennett L. Leventhal, a child psychiatrist at the University of Chicago. And if alienated young people are angry enough, he said, “there are enough images out there to give them some ideas.”

Others pointed out that disgruntled students regularly threaten students and teachers and bring deadly weapons to school.

“There are probably in ‘normal’ times about one ‘foiled’ attempt per week somewhere in the U.S.,” said James Garbarino, a professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and the author of a book on violence by boys.

“Virtually every school in the country has boys sad and mad enough to become the next shooters,” Mr. Garbarino said in an interview by e-mail.

Mr. Simmons, the Wimberley, Texas, superintendent, noted that students can play a role in ensuring school safety.

The alleged plot there last week came to the attention of authorities because “students felt comfortable enough with their teachers to alert them to what was going on,” he said. “And that beats every metal detector, every dog-sniffing squad, every officer you could put at a school.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as ‘Copycat’ Incidents Disrupt Schools, Districts