Bomb calls cost time and money

Instruction hours lost

expenditures go for police, buses

Impact is `tremendous'

Recently passed laws toughen penalties for making threats

May 09, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Thousands of dollars in emergency services have been spent and many hours of teaching time have been lost in Maryland schools because of the dozens of bomb threats and evacuations in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., shootings, school officials statewide say.

"It's costing us an arm and a leg in terms of the loss to the kids' education," said Gregory V. Nourse, budget director of the Anne Arundel County schools.

With the threat of more disruptions tomorrow, school officials expect the tally to rise.

More than classroom time has been lost. Every time a bomb squad goes out, the cost is $500. Since two teen-agers gunned down 12 classmates and a teacher on April 20 at Columbine High School in Littleton, the State Fire Marshal's office says it has spent an extra $3,500 a day to dispatch bomb squads to schools, said spokesman Allen Gosnell.

The bomb scares don't add to the costs of running schools, but county officials say they cheat taxpayers by making them pay for instruction time that is being interrupted by evacuations.

Last year, Anne Arundel County Superintendent Carol S. Parham, testifying in favor of stiffer penalties for youths who make bomb threats, told state lawmakers that the lost instruction time caused by evacuations costs the equivalent of $4,743 an hour for a high school, $2,246 an hour for a middle school and $1,051 an hour for elementary schools.

All systems `struggling'

"It's the same kind of costs that all of the systems are struggling with right now," said Ronald A. Peiffer, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Jane W. Doyle, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel schools, said the law sought by Parham last year, to take away the driver's licenses of those convicted of bomb threats, was passed by the General Assembly this year.

"Something had to be done, because the impact on classroom instruction is tremendous," she said.

Bomb threats have always been taken seriously, but the Littleton shootings have led to extraordinary steps in Maryland and elsewhere, including the postponement of statewide achievement tests that had been scheduled for tomorrow, which is rumored to have been dubbed "bring your gun to school day."

"Even if it's an elementary school student and he just says, `I have a bomb,' we have to consider that," said Donald R. Morrison, a spokesman for Harford County schools. "We're taking everything seriously."

In Anne Arundel County, which has been troubled by school bomb threats in the past, there were 160 threats and 55 arrests last year, county police said.

Last year, the county purchased a bomb-sniffing dog for $5,000 and spent an extra $40,000 to pay bus drivers to take children home early after schools were evacuated.

Fewer threats this year

The number of bomb threats in Anne Arundel has been dropping. Five school bomb threats had been received this school year before the Littleton shootings, and three have been received since, said Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the county state's attorney's office.

Riggin attributed the drop to stiffer sentences handed out by juvenile court masters, who routinely order 2,000 hours of community service, rather than 200 hours. Students also are expelled from school, she said.

She said prosecutors ask judges to order $2,000 in restitution to help cover the counties' costs of responding to bomb threats.

She said the figure is based on regular costs, not overtime, associated with the police response. It does not include teachers' salaries.

Lt. Jeff Kelly, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County police, said several officers, including those with bomb-sniffing dogs, and a supervisor typically respond.

"The response is so great because you have buildings filled with people and the risk is so much greater," Kelly said.

Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the Baltimore County police, said most officers dispatched to schools for bomb threats are on duty patrolling nearby communities, so there are no added costs.

State's attorney prepared

Howard B. Merker, deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County, said that until recent weeks, the county had fewer problems with bomb threats and evacuations than Anne Arundel did.

Merker said the General Assembly toughened the penalties for making bomb threats by upgrading the offense from a misdemeanor to a felony in 1997 and increasing the maximum prison term from one year to 10 years.

Merker said he will ask county police and fire officials for an estimate of the costs of responding to bomb threats and will instruct prosecutors who handle juvenile cases to begin seeking restitution.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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