School threat spurs extra security

May 19, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare, Madison Park and Anica Butler | Mary Gail Hare, Madison Park and Anica Butler,Sun reporters

About half the students at C. Milton Wright High School in Harford County stayed home yesterday after parents were notified Thursday that a threat of possible violence against students had been received, a school spokesman said.

Nearly all the faculty arrived for classes at the 1,830-student campus in Bel Air yesterday and found sheriff's deputies at three doors.

"It opened smoothly with a police presence," said Don Morrison, schools spokesman. "We had hoped for more than 50 percent attendance, but we were not surprised."

The threat came in a letter that arrived by mail at the school Thursday, Morrison said.

"All we have is a written note with a possible threat to do harm to other students," Morrison said, declining to give other details.

A Harford County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said the agency has the letter, is investigating the threat and has no suspect.

The abundance of empty desks made for an eerie atmosphere at the school, said freshman Zac Idzik.

"Most kids thought this was an actual threat, but the teachers kept us calm and made us feel secure," he said. "I did not feel afraid."

Said Whitney Maust, a senior, "There was a lot of tension and a lot of kids were scared, but as the day went on, it got better."

In addition to deputies stationed at doors, police vehicles were circling the campus all day, Morrison said.

Officials placed the school on modified lockdown, with only three doors open to allow students to move between the main building and portable classrooms. The lockdown could continue through next week or until the investigation ends, he said.

School officials met with the faculty before school started for a briefing, but teachers were given minimal information, Morrison said. Classes started at 7:50 a.m., the usual time.

"All the kids wanted to talk about this, especially because a lot of rumors were flying around," Maust said. "More information would have helped, because our imaginations were going wild."

School officials sent two phone-message alerts - at 7 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. yesterday - using an automated calling system to alert parents, caregivers and faculty about the threat and police investigation.

"The phone call was ambiguous," said Maust, who decided to go to school and take her final exams. "In the end, I figured if they were having school, they must be real sure we'd be safe."

David Marzola, parent of a senior, said the notification system was "the best thing that has happened." He and his wife received the message on their work phones, cell phones and household phone Thursday evening. Their son, who plays varsity baseball at the school, decided to attend classes so he could play in the regional finals yesterday. They agreed with his decision, Marzola said.

"You're worried about your kids and you kind of wonder if there's any kind of copycat issues after Virginia Tech," Marzola said. "I think it's important that we teach our kids there are lots of people out there in the world who do things for one reason or another, whether it's a prank or real, we have to move forward."

When Paula Schafer got the message Thursday, she left the decision to her two children, a freshman and a senior. They both decided to go to school.

"We felt that we should keep as normal a schedule as possible," she said. "We felt that security would be really, really good today."

At midmorning, a sheriff's deputy stood outside the main entrance and another one in the parking lot, while a few students left the building, got in cars and drove off. At noon, the school's baseball and softball teams departed to participate in regional playoffs.

"School would not be open if we thought there was an imminent danger to students," Morrison said. "We are in the middle of exams, prom and playoff games. We will not set a precedent and allow a threat to shut down the school."

Weekend activities at the school were to go on as scheduled, Morrison said. A track and field meet is set for today. The senior prom will be at Martin's Eastwind in Middle River tonight, and school officials have arranged for additional security.

"There will be extra vigilance, more locked doors," Morrison said.

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