Bomb threats disrupt schooling

Across state, nation, calls and discoveries of devices sow fear

May 01, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The specter of schoolhouse violence spread across Maryland yesterday as repeated bomb threats emptied 27 Baltimore area schools and government buildings, causing officials to worry that the once-childish prank was becoming an unsettling symptom of trouble in the classroom.

The threats came a day after three students were arrested in Glen Burnie and accused of having bombs and bomb-making equipment. While no bombs were found yesterday, at least three students were detained by police and questioned.

Elsewhere around the country, police reported an escalating number of threats. In several cases, arrests have been made.

The threats in Maryland, increasingly unnerving for students, teachers and parents, have been communicated by telephone, by letter and over the Internet.

"I would like to express my deep concern about these bomb threats," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools.

"This is no longer abstract after what has happened in Colorado. I am most worried about young people who are now literally afraid to go school."

At Hereford High in northern Baltimore County, students were prevented from completing a memorial message for the students in Littleton, Colo., when a bomb threat forced the evacuation of their school.

"It takes away from all the tragic things that have happened. It makes it very trivial," said Alison Savage, 18, a senior. "Obviously, the kids who did it are looking for a day off of school."

As the threats came in, police and school officials immediately began to track down the culprits.

Baltimore school police said a 13-year-old girl from Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore is believed to have called in a bomb threat. School Police Chief Leonard Hamm said the girl had told her parents she didn't want to go to school yesterday.

"We can trace the calls, and we will prosecute," Howard County schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said. "This is serious business. This is illegal. It's an automatic expulsion."

Maryland Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Bob Thomas said that since the Columbine incident, his bomb squad officers have been responding to four or five calls a day from public safety agencies confronted with suspicious devices or bomb threats.

"We're running everywhere from Frostburg to Charles County to the lower Eastern Shore," he said. "We have been all over the state. It's just been nonstop, with suspect devices, bomb threats at schools and suspicious packages."

Across the nation, classes were canceled for thousands of students after their classmates left menacing letters and things that looked like explosives, including something resembling a pipe bomb in Marathon, Wis.

Rumors have been circulating among students and on the Internet that something sinister would happen yesterday -- the anniversary of the day Adolf Hitler killed himself in 1945.

Nearly half the 900 students at Scituate High School and Middle School in Scituate, R.I., stayed home after some someone scrawled on a wall in the girls' bathroom Monday and Tuesday: "You die on April 30th."

Six schools in Charlotte, N.C., were evacuated for bomb threats yesterday, including one where a "suspicious device" resembling a homemade bomb was left in a boys' bathroom, officials said.

A spokesman with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said the device found at suburban Butler High School resembled a bomb and it was being taken to a federal lab in Atlanta for examination.

In Cheektowaga, N.Y., a letter referring to the Littleton rampage and threatening more violence kept most students away from John F. Kennedy High School yesterday and forced the school to close early.

Baltimore County students and teachers said it had been a stressful and unproductive week at county schools with rumors about bombs, lockdown drills and emergency evacuations. Yesterday alone, there were 15 bomb threats.

"It's caused disruptions in every class, all day long," said Brian Frazier, a music teacher at Franklin High School in western Baltimore County.

Some Franklin High students said a bomb threat Wednesday prompted hundreds of students to go home early. They said some were genuinely scared, and others used the threat as an excuse to leave school.

"It's frustrating as a student, a parent and as an administrator," said Jean Walker, assistant principal at Kenwood High School in eastern Baltimore County.

"We're supposed to provide a safe and orderly environment for them to learn. We haven't had that lately."

John Trainor, whose daughter, Becky, is a sophomore at North Carroll High School, said he was satisfied that school and law police officials were doing "all they can to ensure safety in the schools." But he said his daughter and a lot of other students at North Carroll were a "little concerned about going to school [yesterday]" after hearing that "something was going to happen."

"A kid at Perry Hall said he had a hit list, but you never know if people are serious or joking," said Sarah Hutchinson, a senior at Perry Hall High School.

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