Bomb threats force schools to anticipate the worst

2013-03-10T03:15:00Z 2015-05-08T13:53:17Z Bomb threats force schools to anticipate the worstBy DALE LINDER-ALTMAN, T&D Staff Writer The Times and Democrat

It may seem like a prank, but it’s much more.

Bomb threats disrupt learning and pose serious challenges for both schools and the community, administrators say.

“It’s more than just a prank from someone trying to send a message,” Orangeburg Consolidated School District Five Superintendent Cynthia Wilson said. “Our students and teachers are always alarmed when something happens that is taken so urgently and they have to react so quickly.”

Practice drills are held and teachers are trained to handle such situations calmly and professionally, Wilson said. But no one is really prepared for a real threat.

Someone called in a bomb threat to Dover Elementary School on Feb. 11. Students were taken to North High School and given lunch.

They were able to return to class that afternoon, but the day was disrupted. If they’d missed the entire school day, they would have had to make it up, Wilson said.

“It’s unfortunate when people don’t consider the students before making these threats,” she said. “But it’s also upsetting to parents.

“When we call them, they don’t have any idea if it’s real or how much of a threat it is.”

Additionally, a bomb threat disrupts the community because the fire department and law enforcement have to come out and investigate, Wilson said.

Local school district officials say they have specific guidelines for teachers and staff to follow, and everyone knows where to go and what to do should a bomb threat come in. They also routinely hold practice drills to familiarize personnel and students with the process to cut down on confusion when an emergency does occur.

According to Wilson, the Dover students were out of the building and across the road from the school within 10 minutes of the call coming in.

Spokesman Greg Carson said the reason District Five’s students and personnel can be evacuated so quickly is that they consistently practice the procedure.

“We want to get them at least 1,000 feet away from the school, and we do it quickly,” he said. Once everyone is out of the building, the procedure is handed over to law enforcement.

“They will search the entire building to see if anything is out of order,” he said. “When they determine everything is OK, they give an all-clear signal, and we take the kids back in.”

On Jan. 10, students were evacuated from Lake Marion High School in Orangeburg Consolidated School District Three after a custodian discovered a threat written on the bathroom wall.

When so many lives could be at stake, schools just can’t take chances, district Community Relations Coordinator Ronnie Myers said.

“The threat may be a prank, but you just can’t take a chance,” he said. “The number one focus is to get everyone out of the school as quickly and safely as possible.”

Less than an hour after the threatening message was found, Lake Marion was completely empty and students were on their way home, Myers said. The threat turned out to be an empty one, but students missed the rest of the school day.

OCtech’s buildings were evacuated on March 4 after a bomb threat was called in, but the campus reopened after being cleared by law enforcement. A similar incident happened in on Feb. 24, 2012. Classes were dismissed on that occasion, and the sheriff’s office searched the building but found nothing suspicious.

The college’s certified law enforcement department and senior management assess all threats and notify the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office, Vice President for Finance Retta Guthrie said. The information is also sent out to students and personnel by intercom, text messaging and email.

“We have an emergency evacuation procedure and provide periodic training and updates,” Guthrie said. Once an evacuation begins, no one is allowed to return to any building until the campus is cleared by law enforcement.

Campus officers assist the Sheriff’s Office in any way possible, including providing phone records, video and witness statements, Guthrie said.

Orangeburg Consolidated School District Four hasn’t had a bomb threat in a number of years, but teachers and staff go through training annually on how to deal with them, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Larry Wolfe said.

Teachers are trained to make a quick visual sweep of their room and look for anything that appears unusual or out of place as they start moving students out, he said. However, they’re instructed not to touch anything — not even to open or close a cabinet door.

They’re taught not to switch lights off or use cell phones or walkie-talkies, he said. Electronic devices could possibly set off a bomb if there’s really one in the building.

“They just take their roll book and get the kids to their designated area,” he said. When they get there, they check the roll to be sure their students are all present.

Office staff is trained to get as much information as possible if a bomb threat is phoned in, Wolfe said.

“Each secretary has a bomb threat checklist under her phone,” he said. The list reminds the secretary to write down the time the call comes in and ask who is calling, where the bomb is and when it’s set to go off, among other questions.

The list reminds the employee to evaluate the voice, he said. Is there anything that stands out about it? Is there a speech impediment? Is it a male or female?

Employees are also instructed to listen to background noises, Wolfe said.

Dr. Thelma Sojourner of Bamberg School District Two says when a threat comes in, the fire alarm is activated and the evacuation process is started immediately. Receptionists are also trained to get as much information from the caller as possible.

“When that call comes in, we try to keep them on the line as soon as possible,” Sojourner said. “Then we call law enforcement.”

Even though the district hasn’t had any bomb threats in several years, it does perform practice runs, according to Sojourner.

Each school has a safe haven where students are taken if a bomb threat comes in, she said.

“We review that at the beginning of the year,” she said. “We did it just after Christmas, and we sent out a reminder for parents about the safe haven so they’d know where to go pick up their children.”

Bus drivers also went through a practice run, to prepare them to evacuate students as efficiently as possible, Sojourner said.

Bamberg School District One had two bomb threats some years ago, Superintendent Phyllis Schwarting said.

“The two times it happened here, SLED came in and brought bomb dogs to make sure it was safe to go back in,” she said.

“We do have a plan in place – get our kids out as quickly as possible,” Schwarting said. “We have a designated place for all students to move at least 300 yards away from the building.”

She said the district plans for several types of emergencies.

“School intruders, bomb threats, tornadoes, earthquakes – we have some tabletop exercises so that children will know what to do should one of these horrible things occur,” she said.

Superintendent Dr. Steve Wilson said the Calhoun County Public School District has not had any bomb threats in the three years he’s been in the district.

“However, we would follow emergency procedures,” he said. “We would abandon the building and call in emergency professionals.

“A lot of times they’re just hoaxes, but you have to take them seriously.”

Orangeburg County Sheriff Leroy Ravenell is hesitant about giving out information about specific procedures for responding to bomb threats, spokesperson Keisa Peterson said.

However, he said that his office begins assessing and investigating how real the threat is while the building is being evacuated.

If needed, other resources are called in to help with the search, he said.

“Once our on-site response is complete, we begin investigating ... to determine who was responsible for disturbing the peace,” he said.

Students have been arrested following bomb threats. In September 2001, weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a 16-year-old was arrested after a threat was called into District Five.

Also, two arrests were made in 2006 after threats were made to Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School. One of the students was charged as an adult under the tougher law passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Cynthia Wilson said people need to help law enforcement in its efforts to find the perpetrators because bomb threats have a negative effect on the entire community.

“I wish the community would work with us to help identify individuals who do these types of things to show them it isn’t acceptable behavior,” she said. “That would benefit everyone.”

Contact the writer: dlinder-altman@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5529.

Copyright 2015 The Times and Democrat. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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