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Handling a bomb threat
Response to Tuesday incidents costly to responding agencies, angers some, helps training
W 092915 BOMB THREATS 07
Public safety officers and Langston Chapel Middle and Elementary School staff help direct parents who came to pick up their children after Tuesday's bomb threat. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

The 12-year-old girl police say is responsible for at least two of three bomb threat phone calls that shut down four local schools Tuesday remains incarcerated at the Claxton Youth Detention Center, awaiting further court hearings.

    Four schools were closed Tuesday after the bomb threats and subsequent evacuations: William James Middle School on Highway 80 West, Langston Chapel Middle School and Langston Chapel Elementary School on Langston Chapel Road, and Mill Creek Elementary School on Highway 24. No call was received at Langston Chapel Elementary, but because it is adjacent to the middle school, it was evacuated as a precaution.

    While bomb threats almost always prove to be unfounded, school and law enforcement officials treat each threat seriously and take every precaution in investigating them, including mobilizing all available agencies and officers, which can be costly.

    Chief Deputy Jared Akins with the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office said the cost of the incident to the sheriff's office alone totaled around $6,000. The response took more than five and a half hours and involved 27 deputies and investigators, who handled the threats as well as patrolled the county's remaining schools as a precaution, he said.

    That total doesn't take into account the officers from other agencies, including the Statesboro Police Department, Georgia State Patrol and Region 5 Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who also assisted.

    Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Kathy Bradley, who handles juvenile cases, said the girl faced a judge Wednesday morning, but the case was bound over to an Oct. 13 hearing.

 

Charges against juvenile

    Bulloch County sheriff's investigators charged the girl with two counts each of transmitting a false public alarm, disrupting a public school, reckless conduct and terroristic threats. Investigators traced calls made to Langston Chapel and William James middle schools back to the girl's phone, Akins said.

    A third call, made to Mill Creek Elementary School about an hour after the other two calls, is still under investigation by the Statesboro Police Department, said Cpl. Justin Samples.

    "No charges are expected to be made" against the girl regarding the third call, he said. Mill Creek Elementary School is located inside the city limits, under Statesboro police jurisdiction, while the other three schools involved are in the county's jurisdiction.

    After the first calls, made within minutes of each other between 10:30 a.m. and 10:37 a.m. Tuesday, children were evacuated from the school buildings while calls were made to law enforcement.

    As deputies and bomb-sniffing dogs were checking the schools affected by the first two calls, the third call was made to Mill Creek.

    "It is unacceptable to what we value as a community for someone to act in this manner against our schools," said Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson. "Anyone found deliberately initiating or taking part in any such act via any means or purposefully inciting fear and/or disrupting our schools will be prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law. This includes using social media to purposefully spread misinformation or threats."

 

Some parents protest delay in calls

    Students were kept outside for some time while the schools were checked, and Wilson made the decision to cancel classes shortly before noon, said Hayley Greene, public relations specialist for the Bulloch County school system.

    Student and faculty safety was the most important issue, and as soon as everyone was safe and Wilson decided to cancel classes, calls were made via an automated system to parents, she said.

    "Usually (in) a situation that affects a school, the principal will initiate the call out," Greene said Wednesday. "Since they had to evacuate and student safety was first priority, I was contacted to make call outs … from my office."

    Some parents expressed anger over the delay in notification, complaining that they learned of the situation on social media or in phone calls from their children before they received a message from the school system.

    "I definitely have something to say about the impact that the bomb threat scare had on me, my child and my new lack of faith in the Bulloch County (Board of Education's) capability to handle emergency situations," said Sarah Barnard, whose son attends one of the schools evacuated Tuesday. "I am thankful that my son was staying home from school (Tuesday), so I was lucky enough to not experience the negative impact to the full degree that I would have, had he been present."

    She said she feels calls should have gone out to parents immediately after the evacuation began, not more than two hours later.

    "There should be a step-by-step process for parents to get information during a crisis," Barnard said. "No parent should have to wonder and read conjecture on social media and news outlets hours before being reached by the source itself."

    Greene said at first it was unclear whether the schools involved would be closed, and efforts to get everyone to safety came first.

    Another twist to the situation was an unrelated power outage at Stilson Elementary School around the same time the bomb threats were received. A transformer blew, leaving the school without power; however, classes resumed with the aid of generators until the issue was rectified.

    Also, changes had to be made to an initial call out after the Mill Creek threat came in, Greene said, which caused another slight delay.

    "All of these factors contributed to a perceived delay by parents. Also, if we do an immediate call out, before it's been established if school is closed and where alternate pickup will be, we would be calling hundreds of parents to a crime scene and create an additional burden on law enforcement to handle crowd control," Greene said.

    Wilson made the decision to close the schools between 11:40 a.m. and noon, and calls went out then, she said.

    "All calls were complete to 20,453 numbers and over 7,000 emails by 12:20 p.m.," Greene said.

    Angie Washburn's three children each were involved in school evacuations. Washburn panicked when her son Brandon called her from someone else's cellphone at William James Middle School to tell her there had been a bomb threat.

    When Washburn's parents went to pick up her children, "it was chaotic" with upset parents, she said. After her son called, she phoned the BOE office, but a woman who answered told her that classes had not been canceled. That was confusing, she said.

    Her younger children, at Mill Creek Elementary, were spared from fright by school officials, who didn't disclose the reason for the evacuation to students.

    "They didn't know it was a bomb threat until later that night," Washburn said.

 

Students moved to safety first

    Ginny January also has three children whose schools were evacuated due to the threats.

    She, too, was initially upset that calls from the school system were made almost two hours after the evacuations. But when she learned that the main reason for the delay was that students were taken to safety first, she changed her mind.

    After learning of the incident through friends' calls and Facebook posts, she went to pick up her children and was impressed by the way things were handled, she said.

    Her younger children at Mill Creek "had no clue it was a bomb threat," she said. "They thought it was a normal fire drill."

    Even at the middle school, where students were aware of the bomb threat calls, things were orderly, she said.

    January said she hopes the school system can learn afrom the incident and further improve their emergency call system, but she appreciates the fact that student safety was placed foremost.

    The calling system "is one thing the Bulloch County Board of Education needs to make sure works," Washburn said.

   

Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

 

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