Schools alert to attack rumors

Speculation possibly spread via Internet, worrying families

Officials assure safety

Plans for MSPAP in place, despite fears of disruption Monday

May 06, 1999|By Kirsten Scharnberg and Erika Peterman | Kirsten Scharnberg and Erika Peterman,SUN STAFF

With rumors of May 10 schoolhouse attacks circulating wildly, education officials in Anne Arundel and Howard counties are making plans to deal with potentially dangerous situations and trying to reassure students and parents.

Anne Arundel school administrators will meet today to discuss how to deal with parental concerns and student fears about attacks rumored to be set for Monday, the day students throughout the state are to take MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program) tests.

"We are going to sit down and assess how to handle this," said Ken Lawson, assistant superintendent of Anne Arundel County public schools. "We are going to take into account all comments, suggestions, rumors, concerns and information we have before we instruct our various principals on how to deal with that particular day."

Michael E. Hickey, Howard County superintendent, sent a letter home to parents today acknowledging rampant rumors about attacks planned for Monday and assuring the safety of the students.

"This information was supposedly announced on the Internet and is circulating nationwide," Hickey wrote. "We have been unable to verify whether such a site exists, but we are pursuing this with local law enforcement officials. We have also been in contact with the Maryland State Department of Education regarding the potential impact on Maryland school performance testing scheduled to begin next week in third grade and middle schools."

State school officials say they are aware of the rumors, but have not changed their plans.

"We are continuing to gather information as we have been all this week," said Ron Peiffer, spokesman for the State Board of Education. "At this point, there are no plans to change next week's MSPAP test schedule."

The doomsday predictions about Monday have been gaining attention in the two weeks after the deadly school shooting in Littleton, Colo., on April 20. Since then, local schools have dealt with many reports of potential attacks, repeated bomb threats and evacuations, and students who are staying home from school because of their fears.

Three freshmen at Glen Burnie High School were charged last week with building bombs after several students notified school officials.

"Let's just say we're not taking any of this lightly," Lawson said.

Howard schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan confirmed there had been a bomb threat at River Hill High School in Clarksville yesterday and that the school was temporarily evacuated. No bombs were found, Caplan said.

She also acknowledged that the rumors of a catastrophic event occurring Monday have students and parents on edge.

"I don't know what to tell parents," Caplan said. "Nobody has been able to pinpoint where this started. As far as we're concerned, it's all rumor at this point. If we get any more information, we'll certainly let the community know as fast as we can."

In addition to discussing how to deal with parents' and students' fears about Monday, Anne Arundel school administrators will talk about handling possible mass student absences that day. More than 500 of the 1,200 Glen Burnie High School students did not attend school Friday -- also a day rumored for an attack.

Area school officials are being candid about their concerns. They say they are not taking any chances.

"We're in almost constant communication with the Police Department," Lawson said. "We are operating under an atmosphere of heightened security, and will be doing everything we can as far as security goes."

Anne Arundel County police will not disclose specific school security measures, but they say they have been using bomb-sniffing dogs to make sweeps before classes. The dogs spent more than an hour sweeping Glen Burnie High School on Friday before students arrived.

Sgt. Edward Bergin said police are "working very closely with" school officials.

"We're assisting in any means needed. Absolutely no threats are being considered minor in nature," he said.

Maryland is not unique in the rumors of school violence. Since the deaths in Littleton, schools across the nation have been dealing with bomb threats, talks of violence, gun arrests and canceled classes. Some large, urban counties in Michigan, Florida and California have closed school districts because of threats.

Anne Arundel schools have set up a toll-free hot line -- 1-888-466-0888 -- to deal with tips, rumors and questions from students and parents. Lawson said they have received nearly 120 calls in the past week.

"At this point, we are just hoping [Monday] goes according to routine," Lawson said. "For the moment, we are planning to have a normal agenda."

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