Rumors of trouble wreaking havoc in Md. schools

Monday tests put off, security stepped up in response to anxiety

No evidence of any threat

May 07, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Faced with escalating rumors that Maryland schools will be hit by violence Monday, education officials are taking extraordinary steps to calm parents and students -- even postponing statewide achievement tests scheduled that day.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced yesterday afternoon that standardized MSPAP testing for 120,000 third- and eighth-graders would be delayed until Tuesday.

The delay, she said, would provide students a stable routine for the five days of testing.

She and Gov. Parris N. Glendening urged parents to send their children to school Monday, and not to kowtow to rumors that have flooded school and police offices with calls.

"I want parents to see for themselves, as they drop their children off, that our schools are safe," Glendening said in a prepared statement.

But signs of concern were everywhere, as school administrators and police handled hundreds of calls about the rumors.

Some districts, including Howard County, unveiled plans to station police in high schools. Montgomery County administrators said they will sleep in high schools Sunday night as part of weekend-long security plans.

Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, are mystified about the origins of the rumors gripping parents, teachers and students. Local, state and even FBI agents said yesterday that they have no evidence of any attacks planned for May 10 -- which rumors have dubbed "bring your gun to school day."

"There is nothing to indicate that there is any reality to this," said Special Agent Peter Gulotta, an FBI spokesman in Baltimore."We are keeping up with all the information from local agencies and there is no basis for these threats; no direct evidence that anything is going to happen."

Still, school officials and police are taking the rumors seriously.

At an afternoon news conference in Baltimore, Grasmick sought to assure parents that all schools will be in session next week -- amid unprecedented security arrangements.

Urging Marylanders not "to buy into this sensationalized hype," she noted that there was no evidence of danger and not even anything about May on the Internet, as many students and parents seem to believe.

Grasmick denied that Maryland School Performance Assessment Program testing is being delayed out of worry that widespread absenteeism would send scores plummeting. Absent students are scored as zeros on the MSPAP test -- whose results are widely viewed as a measure of school quality.

Marley Middle School Principal John Kozora doesn't think anything will happen Monday, but he fears that many students will stay home in Glen Burnie, where three high school students were arrested last week and charged with making bomb threats and owning bomb components.

"Any kind of absenteeism results in zeros on the test," he said. "So in that regard it could be disastrous for the state."

The wild rumors of schoolhouse attacks began circulating immediately after two teen-agers gunned down 12 classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colo., April 20. School officials and police everywhere, including in Maryland, have stepped up school security sweeps and arrested dozens of students. But the most prevalent rumor in Maryland has been that May 10 would bring mass destruction.

Montgomery County authorities said the reference to May 10 first appeared locally before the shootings in Littleton. On a wall in a boys' bathroom at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, someone scrawled the warning, "Fear May 10."

After Littleton, a parent e-mailed other parents to remind them of the warning. Students picked up the message and e-mailed each other. The rumor snowballed.

"The number of outright threats, real and imagined, have intensified, especially among those schools that experienced bomb threats and pranks," Montgomery schools Superintendent Paul Vance wrote in a memo to the school board yesterday. Students and teachers reported to police and administrators that the threats were posted on Internet Web pages.

But police are confounded. "We haven't been able to find anything," said Detective Sgt. Phil Metz of the state police Criminal Intelligence Unit, where about a half-dozen analysts and troopers are searching the Internet.

School officials have gone on the defensive, nonetheless. Administrators in the 23 high schools in Montgomery County are planning to spend Sunday night in their buildings.

At Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Principal James Fish and his staff will sleep in as part of a security plan.

"Some people think I'm over-reacting, but I know what it will take to keep the calm with my parents and kids," he said.

In Montgomery County, a police officer is being assigned to patrol each of the 23 high schools on Monday and other schools will see beefed-up security patrols, said Evans.

But parents remain wary.

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