Strategy targets bomb threats Arundel principals use new methods to fight menacing trend

March 31, 1998|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Frustrated by an epidemic of bomb threats, Anne Arundel County principals are going beyond the measures the school board has adopted and coming up with their own ways to fight back.

They are locking bathrooms where threatening messages are often left and demanding embarrassing apology letters from students who are caught making threats. They are reconstituting classes outside when threats interrupt schoolwork, and forming student governments to try and instill a sense of school pride.

Such tactics are designed to reduce the opportunities to make threats, increase the penalties for students who are caught, and cut back on the fun and idleness of evacuations.

While the tough tactics have some students protesting, principals in the schools that have endured the most incidents say they are seeing the number of threats go down.

The threats began during the last school year, but this year the number has skyrocketed.

During the 1997-1998 school year, 119 threats have come into 34 of the system's 127 schools. That compares with 37 threats to 13 schools during 1996-1997.

North County High School in Ferndale, however, hasn't had a bomb threat since December. That's when Principal Patricia Gronkiewicz launched a three-pronged attack: All but one of the school's five pairs of bathrooms are locked during much of the day; a custodian stays in the bathrooms during all four lunch periods between 9: 20 a.m. and 12: 50 p.m.; and whenever a student leaves a classroom, the teacher fills out a form that notes the time the student left and when he returned, to which the student's pass must be stapled.

The forms, created by Huntley J. Cross, the county's special assistant for student discipline, are also being used at Lothian Elementary and Southern Senior in Harwood, the two schools that have seen the most bomb threats this year -- 13 and 11, respectively.

"It was a direct reaction to the fact that we wanted to reinforce that if a student was out of the classroom, they'd have been out on a legitimate purpose," said Gronkiewicz. "If there were some difficulty we could have some indication of who's been out of the classroom for a certain window of time. It's narrowed the pool from 1,800 [students] that we have to take a look at."

Limiting bathroom access

Bathrooms are a prime location for bomb threats, with many principals reporting that notes have been found written in stalls, on toilet paper and on tile walls.

Southern Senior High School in Harwood, George Fox Middle School in Pasadena, and North County are locking most of their bathrooms during class times.

"I think it's stupid," said T. J. Lowe, a 17-year-old senior at North County. "The bomb threats stopped, so why do they have to be closed?"

"I hate it," added Vince Tang, 16, a junior. "We're late sometimes."

A substitute teacher at North County, who asked not to be named, said that teachers, upon seeing how long the lines are at bathrooms, refuse to let their students go.

"It takes them 20 minutes to go to the bathroom, and most of the teachers won't let them go to the bathroom because of that," the substitute said. "I just think it's atrocious, and the bathroom is always out of toilet paper and everything because of that."

The school system supports the bathroom lockdowns.

"I think those measures certainly help because it cuts down on traffic in the hallways," said Anne Arundel County schools spokeswoman Jane W. Doyle. "When children are alone somewhere they may be tempted to write something or leave a note. That access to many, many rooms in the building has been reduced," she said.

She said it is less inconvenient for students to have to have hall passes than it is for them to stand outside during a bomb scare.

Positive measures

At the Old Mill schools complex in Millersville, where there have been 11 bomb threats this school year, "instead of just evacuating to outside, we go down to the stadium, where there are places to sit, drink water, and Port-a-Potties," said Principal William Callaghan. Teachers take attendance so people don't leave.

Taking a different tack, Lothian Elementary this year is trying to increase pride in the school by starting a student government with one representative from every class. Administrators are also planning a track and field day.

"When students feel supported, they get a sense of pride being at Lothian," said Principal Max Muller. "If you have that attitude, children are less likely to embarrass you or the school."

Offender apologizes

At Southern Senior High in Harwood, Principal Clifton Prince has imposed detention for repeated tardiness and has posted newspaper articles on bulletin boards to remind students of the consequences of making bomb threats.

One offender, Desiree Arnold of Deale, was ordered by the court to write a letter for publication about what happened after she was caught making a bomb threat. Prince published it in a school newsletter and had Arnold read it over the public address system.

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