States Seek To Defuse School Bomb Scares
Bomb scares have become so prevalent at schools over the past few years that state lawmakers are now crafting policies specifically aimed at deterring them.
A dozen states from Florida to Michigan have passed laws over the past year or are currently considering legislation designed to punish those who make bomb threats against schools—many of whom are students. Penalties under the various bills include suspending offenders' driving privileges, expelling them from school, and requiring their parents to pay damages.
While many states have long had laws on the books to punish those who make bomb threats in public or private arenas, few dealt specifically with such threats in schools. That has changed, though, in a trend that experts say accelerated after last spring's deadly rampage by two students at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., and the spate of copycat threats that incident inspired around the nation. ("A Colo. Community Looks for Answers After Deadly Attack," April 28, 1999.)
"Clearly, the legislation being developed has resulted from an outgrowth of violence we've seen over the past two to three years, and particularly since Columbine," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.
More than 5,000 bomb threats have disrupted schools since the Columbine incident, a majority of which have been false alarms, Mr. Stephens said. Such scares cause significant inconvenience and anxiety in school communities and cost students critical hours of classroom learning, he noted. Moreover, such scares are expensive. Some administrators report that bomb scares have cost their local taxpayers up to $40,000 an incident, while the price tag has run even higher in districts hit with repeated threats.
State Rep. Joseph K. Leibham understands all too well. He represents Sheboygan, Wis., a community 60 miles south of Green Bay that has been plagued since December by 14 bomb threats involving schools.
Although no real bombs have been found, the threats have shaken up the entire 11,000-student Sheboygan Area School District, costing residents more than $100,000 and prompting heightened security at every one of the district's 17 schools, the Republican lawmaker said.
Mr. Leibham argues that such scares continue in Sheboygan in part because the state's punitive measures are not meaningful to the teenagers responsible for the threats. So he wants to scrap the current punishments—a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine—and replace them with a law that would expel convicted youths from school, suspend their driver's licenses for two years, and mandate that their parents pay a maximum fine of $5,000. The money would help cover the costs of paying local law-enforcement agencies that respond to threats in the district, he said.
To deter the crime among preteenagers—an age group that often perpetrates bomb threats—the bill would take away the licenses of those convicted for two years once they were eligible to drive.
"That," Mr. Leibham said, "really seems to wake them up."
Similar measures seem to be having an effect in North Carolina, said Pam Riley, the director of the Center for School Violence in Raleigh, N.C. A law enacted last year mandates that offenders' licenses be confiscated for one year. It also holds parents liable for damages up to $25,000.
"We had 72 bomb threats between April 1999 and the end of the school year," Ms. Riley said. "It was an epidemic at that point."
Since the law took effect in July, however, schools have seen only a handful of bomb threats, Ms. Riley said. She speculated that the combination of new penalties and increased prevention efforts in schools may have contributed to the drop-off. Some Virginia lawmakers, meanwhile, are promoting a bill that would hold parents liable for damages if their children were convicted of bomb threats, a punishment several states are discussing but few have tried. The Virginia legislation sets no cap on such damage payments.
Students "are going to have a record, and their parents are literally going to have to pay the bill," said Delegate Harry R. Purkey, the Republican who introduced the legislation, which is scheduled to be reviewed by a House committee in December. Michigan enacted a law last summer that expels students who make bomb threats for up to 180 school days, another popular measure up for discussion in other states.
"This will deter kids who may be doing it for attention. They'll think twice," said Michael Washburn, the superintendent of the 8,000-student Forrest Hills district east of Grand Rapids, Mich., which experienced a flurry of bomb threats two years ago.
No Easy Task
School violence experts agree that deterring bomb threats is a difficult task.
Various strategies will work or fail depending on the students and their motivations for committing such acts, said Kevin P. Dwyer, the president of the National Association of School Psychologists, based in Bethesda, Md.
Suspension, for example, is a deterrent for students who care deeply about scarring their school records, but it doesn't work for students who do not feel a strong investment in school, Mr. Dwyer said.
"When you suspend a kid and send him home, he has time to phone in bomb scares," he added.
Asking parents to pay for damages won't work as a deterrent for many students, said Peter D. Blauvelt, the president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, based in Slanesville, W.Va.
Many states have long had similar policies that mandate parents pay for damage caused by vandals, but the laws fail because the courts do not enforce them, Mr. Blauvelt maintained. Even when they are enforced, he said, parents often don't have the money to pay the debts.
Both Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Blauvelt agreed that suspending driver's licenses might be the most effective deterrent for the greatest number of students.
"I can't think of anything that is as prized as highly as a teenager's driver's license," Mr. Blauvelt said. "I think that would have an incredible impact."
Vol. 19, Issue 35, Pages 22, 26Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as States Seek To Defuse School Bomb Scares