Bomb hoaxes follow killings

Md., D.C. schools hit by a rash of threats after Colo. incident

April 28, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Hundreds of students poured out of classes yesterday as four schools in Baltimore County and two in Baltimore City were forced to evacuate after bomb threats.

They weren't alone.

The District of Columbia public school system ordered all 72,000 of its students cleared from their buildings after a caller warned police that a bomb was set to explode in an unidentified school.

No bombs turned up at any of the schools. But it was the second straight day of such disruption at schools in the Baltimore-Washington area.

On Monday, 16 high schools in the District of Columbia were evacuated after a bomb threat, and Parkville High in Baltimore County was cleared after a similar threat.

In the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that left 15 dead, school officials around the country are grappling with a troubling dilemma.

With parents and school officials more sensitive than ever to threats of violence, each onemust be treated seriously. But each evacuation interrupts classes, frightens some youngsters and brings the risk that more troublemakers will recognize how much attention a prank can attract.

Statewide and nationwide, the incidents suddenly seem to be growing. Yesterday alone, at least seven schools in Maryland were evacuated, and all 146 in the District of Columbia were ordered cleared after bomb threats.

Amid the chaos yesterday, some district schools never heard the order, and it was not clear how many of them actually were evacuated.

"We are confronted now on a daily basis with either copycat incidents or students who are feeling fear," Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's superintendent of schools, said yesterday. "We don't anticipate this will diminish between now and the end of the school year."

The two bomb threats in the city yesterday came at Baltimore City College and at Waverly Elementary School. Classes were interrupted for about an hour at City. At Waverly, the threat came just before dismissal time.

In Baltimore County, Milford Mill Academy and Woodlawn, Patapsco and Owings Mills high schools were targeted by threats yesterday.

Police officers used bomb-sniffing dogs to search the schools and determined that the buildings were safe. Students were kept out of school for about an hour.

"In the wake of what we saw in Colorado, everyone has a certain amount of anxiety this week about whoever is making these calls," said Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the Baltimore County schools.

"I think students are as aggravated by this as everybody else is, and they just want to get back into class."

Baltimore County police said yesterday that two male students at the private High Road school, ages 14 and 15, were charged with threat of arson after a bus driver overheard them making comments about "making pipe bombs to blow up the school" and talking about being in the Trench Coat Mafia.

The boys, who told police they were joking, were released to their parents' custody.

In Frederick County, a New Market Middle School teacher found a bomb threat note on her desk, prompting officials to evacuate the school for four hours.

A 14-year-old student admitted writing the letter, police said. He was charged with threatening to blow up an explosive -- a misdemeanor -- and was released to his mother.

Fred Hanna, a professor of counseling at Johns Hopkins University, said students can become scared and even disoriented when yanked from class and told that there may be a bomb inside their school.

"They are going to need to be talked with," he said.

It is entirely understandable, Hanna said, if school officials are edgy in the wake of the Columbine shootings.

"When faced with, `Do I ignore this threat or take it seriously?,' it's better to err on the side of caution -- that's the mentality we see right now," he said.

Most school officials said they are not responding to incidents any differently since the Colorado massacre. But some of them acknowledge that an atmosphere of anxiety, especially among parents, has developed in the past week.

"Parents are even more adamant now," said Dolores Bell, a spokeswoman for the public school system in Memphis, Tenn. "We're hearing loudly from our parents that if there's the slightest rumor, they want it handled."

Memphis' school district was forced to empty one high school yesterday and another Friday after bomb threats.

In a separate incident in Memphis, two middle school students -- after being scanned by a metal detector for weapons during a random search -- began joking around. One said, "They didn't get my gun." Another said, "I should have worn my trench coat today." Both were suspended.

The day after the Colorado incident, three students set off firecrackers in the hallways at Edmondson/Westside Senior High in Baltimore, frightening students.

One parent, Carol Jackson, said her daughter was "devastated" when the firecrackers went off outside her classroom. Many students hit the floor, believing that there was gunfire in the hall, she said.

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