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‘This is a different age’: Why schools are taking terror threats more seriously

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In Snohomish, Wash., 1,600 high school students were evacuated after a bomb threat was found scrawled on a bathroom wall.

In Lowell, Ind., 1,300 high school students were locked down for two hours after a student reportedly threatened to “shoot up the school.”

And in Beavercreek, Ohio, more than 2,000 high school students were sent home early after someone phoned in a bomb threat — the third targeting the school this fall.

While attention was trained this week on Los Angeles and its decision to shutter schools over a fake bomb threat, more than a dozen other incidents on the very same day prompted panic at the nation’s educational institutions – a sign of the times, and an indication that schools are taking threats increasingly seriously.

“What we’ve told our children is that this is a different age — you can’t make jokes and talk about shootings or bombings,” said Lowell Superintendent Debra Howe. “Everything has a heightened sense of awareness now.”

After a series of mass shootings this year, as well as terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Americans are feeling jittery. A Gallup poll found fear of terrorism hit its highest point in 10 years in November, with one-in-six Americans now naming terrorism as the most important issue in the country.

Nowhere is that fear more evident than at the nation’s schools and universities, which are responding to threats real and imagined with unprecedented rigor, security experts said.

While there are no national statistics, many say they are seeing a rise in electronic or telephone threats, and that schools are increasingly responding with lockdowns and closures.

“Schools are a soft target by their nature. They’re very difficult to control, with kids coming in and going out all the time,” said Johnathan Tal, chief executive of Tal Global, a security consulting firm that works with private companies as well as private and charter schools. “And it’s not just the deranged high school student or middle school student you have to worry about. It’s a really attractive target for terrorists because it’s an emotional target.”

Tal said he has noticed a marked uptick in threats this year, coinciding with the rise of the Islamic State as well as a rash of school shootings. At the same time, he said, schools have been reacting more dramatically, evacuating buildings or locking them down when, in the past, they may have responded with more skepticism.

William Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said colleges have also seen a rise in threats, particularly since the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., in October, which claimed the lives of a professor and eight students.

Since then, at least five colleges have shut down for at least a day because of shooting or bomb threats, and several others have evacuated buildings or gone on lockdown.

In one extreme example, Washington College in Chestertown, Md., closed for two weeks last month after a distraught student went missing from his parents’ house with a rifle. Jacob Marberger, 19, was later discovered in a bird sanctuary near his Pennsylvania home, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“There’s a perception in our country that educational institutions are somehow protected from the things of the world,” Taylor said. “The fact of the matter is that the things of the world can walk into them any day of the week.”

In an interview, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is stepping down at the end of the year, lamented that mass shootings occur “almost weekly now” in the United States, and that little has been done to prevent gun violence affecting young people. As a result, he said, students live “in a state of constant fear.”

“We have nothing, zero, in terms of legislation passed to keep kids safe,” he said. “We choose to let hundreds of kids die every year and that is a conscious choice.”

Security experts differ on how schools should respond. Some say they have little choice but to take every threat seriously. Erring on the side of caution means lost instructional time and, perhaps, ridicule. But ignoring a threat is increasingly not an option.

Others, however, warn that extreme responses can inspire copycats, unnecessarily rattle students and staff and ignore more present dangers.

“What’s happening is that school administrators are reacting to parental and community pressure, and responding emotionally rather than cognitively,” said Ken Trump, a consultant who advises school districts on security protocols. “In fact, on a day-to-day basis, your local elementary school has more chance of a noncustodial parent kidnapping a child.”

In a report last year, Trump’s firm, National School Safety and Security Services, found that threats against schools had crept up over the previous year, with the majority of threats coming in the form of bomb scares. Of 812 threats studied by the firm in the first five months of 2014, about 30 percent led to school evacuations and 10 percent led to school closures for at least part of a day.

The threats almost always turn out to be hoaxes, Trump said. Still, there has been genuine cause for concern. In San Bernardino, he said, law enforcement officials turned up possible evidence that the attackers may have been planning to target a school in addition to an office holiday party.

The litany of threats on a single day this week offer testament to the ubiquity of the problem. On Tuesday, as Los Angeles school officials ordered more than 600,000 students in the nation’s second-largest school system to stay home because of an emailed threat, a small-town high school in rural Indiana was also on lockdown.

School administrators at Lowell High School were contacted by local police after a student had threatened to shoot fellow classmates. Students were already on their way to school. So rather than turn buses around, administrators brought in the students and closed the doors. Police responded to the scene and stood outside every entrance until the student was identified, according to the school district.

About two hours later, the principal announced authorities had found “no credible threat” and classes resumed. A suspect was taken into custody and charges are pending.

Meanwhile, at Beavercreek High School in Ohio, a threatening phone call at 10 a.m. led administrators to evacuate students to a local church and then dismiss them for the day, according to media reports. A law enforcement sweep of the school turned up nothing.

And on Tuesday afternoon, Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish, Wash., was evacuated when administrators discovered a written threat about an explosion scribbled on a bathroom stall.

“Anytime we have a threat – written or verbal – we notify authorities and act on what they tell us to do,” said Kristin Foley, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish School District. “It has happened before. In the last five years, it has happened at least 10 times.”

A day later, on Wednesday, it happened again. Similar threats were also found in the bathroom at nearby Snohomish High School.

After back-t0-back evacuations, frustrated Glacier Peak administrators decided to take a different approach. They locked the bathroom doors for the rest of the week.

Sandhya.Somashekhar@washpost.com

Lindsey.Bever@washpost.com

Mark Berman, Susan Svrluga and Emma Brown contributed to this report.

 

This article was written by Sandhya Somashekhar;Lindsey Bever from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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