While bomb threats plague area schools, police respond with new tactics to show kids how quickly a phone hoax becomes a felony offense.
This guy with a cell phone is driving me nuts," Detective Michael Wyatt says angrily. "It's SOL week. I'm on my way over to John Marshall [High School] right now for the second time today."
Things are out of control, and it's serious. But ask even a frustrated and worn-down Wyatt of the Richmond Police bomb squad unit "Who's most at risk?" and you'll hear worry in his voice: "It's the students who are suffering."
Since February, area police have spent hundreds of hours responding to what has become nearly daily routine bomb threats.
These anonymous crisis calls have targeted everything from private businesses to government offices to public places. But now, seemingly overnight, bomb scares are bombarding schools.
It only takes one call sometimes from a student's home, or even from within the school itself to cause a crisis that forces police to evacuate and search a school. At first, fear and suspicion swell, but this quickly turns to anger and frustration when copycat calls continue. But now, new tactics will help police catch school-age criminals at the end of the phone line.
News of the trouble in Petersburg surfaced last month when 23 of the 32 threats reported this school year took place in just a matter of weeks. So far, 16 student arrests have been made in 24 cases in Petersburg, and more are expected.
Experts say that since the Columbine High School tragedy in Littleton, Colo., that killed 15, and injured 23 nearly a year ago, a dramatic increase in bomb scares has prompted cities such as Philadelphia and New York and now Petersburg and Richmond to get tougher on bomb-threat policy. Philadelphia no longer provides bomb-threat information to the media because, say city officials, copycats thrive on the attention. In New York, new penalties hold parents, as well as students, responsible for costs and damages incurred by juveniles who make the threats.
So far, in only six months, 25 bomb threats have been made to Richmond city schools. That's a 150 percent increase from the 10 reported all of last year.
Last month, four bomb-threat calls were made to four different Richmond city middle schools. In one case, police have arrested a 12-year old.
"We respond to every one," says Wyatt, "and we take them all seriously." Despite the aggravation and worry these threats provoke in officers, parents, teachers and students, anyone who's been present during a bomb threat knows the relief when nothing happens.
Still, when the students return to the classroom, it's hardly back to business as usual. It's a disruption that takes anywhere from an hour to the rest of the day for police to investigate. "Kids aren't dumb," says Wyatt, "it breaks the rhythm of school."
"The weather has something to do with it," says Gary Jenkins, assistant special agent in charge with the Virginia State Police explosives unit. Last spring, 52 bomb threats were made to Petersburg city schools. And the desire to get out of tests provokes some students to call in bomb threats. "SOL testing plays a factor in it," concedes Jenkins.
Jenkins supervises five officers who specialize in bomb-threat response. It is this team, along with three explosives-trained K-9s, that responds when bomb threats are called in anywhere in the 21 counties of Central Virginia and the city of Petersburg. The good news is, says Jenkins, no Virginia school has been the target of a live bomb. But, he hesitates, "I don't want to put it out there for someone to be the first."
Jenkins' response is shared by those who fear that attention of any kind to bomb threats only adds to the problem.
Debra Marlow, director of community relations for Chesterfield County, is more than upset, she's outraged. Too often, she feels the media irresponsibly present information that "only encourages young people who seek attention to get it through threatening behaviors."
Chesterfield County, like Henrico, reports very few cases of bomb threats within the county schools. And Marlow wants to keep it that way. "It's a very thin line," says Marlow, fearing attention could spark copycat behavior to spill over into Chesterfield.
Still, city or county, project or suburb, it's behavior that occurs among students of every age and every background. "It's hard to pinpoint," says the State Police's Jenkins. "One kid was a good student. He missed the school bus and was afraid he'd be in trouble," says Jenkins. In hopes of stalling school for the day, the student called in a bomb threat. "He wouldn't have thought of that before," regrets Jenkins.
"One of the primary messages we have to send is that we have zero tolerance for [such] violent acts," insists Chesterfield's Marlow.
It's a message that the General Assembly reinforced just before the February spate of bomb threats that now grips the state. Sponsored by Del. Phil Hamilton (R-Newport News) House Bill 274 amends previous legislation and requires all school personnel to report bomb threats or any other threatening behavior to the school principal. In addition, principals must report all cases of bomb threats to the police, and this information must be made available to the public.
The General Assembly's nod to the problem is a start, but does little to actually deter students from staging bomb hoaxes in the first place.
"We're working on some programs," says Jenkins. For instance, many schools, like those in Chesterfield, have adopted Crime Stoppers clubs in which students are encouraged to report any threat seen or overheard among classmates. Juvenile Court Judges are now visiting classes to explain the severity of the crime. For kids under 15, making a bomb threat is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in a detention center and a $2,500 fine; for teens older than 15 it's a Class 5 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine. Kids convicted of making bomb threats could lose their driver's licenses. They'll also be suspended from school, probably expelled. The goal, says Jenkins, is to prevent these crimes with stiffer penalties. "I hate to say this," says Jenkins, "but we had a kid in elementary school make a bomb threat. That's how serious this is. Parents need to know what their kids are doing," he urges, "and teachers and administrators need to know where their kids are."
But students who make bomb threats seemingly shrug off the consequences, say police. Likely, it's because they can't imagine getting caught. The calls usually made from pay phones and cell phones have been difficult to trace. But Jenkins says those days are over. "There is new technology that can trace phone calls," says Jenkins, no matter where the call comes from. "And it works," he adds. Just how it works remains a secret, says Jenkins. "I really can't discuss it," he says, explaining that if word got out on how police make arrests, it could jeopardize their efforts. What's more, kids might be able to find a way around the system.
For some kids, making bomb threats is the ultimate revenge assert control, antagonize authorities, skip school for the day. Most kids would say it's not worth it. And kids who do risk it can't keep it to themselves, says Jenkins. "One of the best ways we have of finding out who does these things is that people always
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