Threats prompt questions
A rash of bomb threats early in this school year have raised questions about what emergency procedures school officials have in place and whether they are being followed.
A bomb threat at Phillip Barbour High School on Sept. 4 prompted an email from an Inter-Mountain reader and PBHS parent complaining that students were not evacuated during the situation.
“We would like to know how our children were considered safe by the Board of Education during this time, when they were all inside the school building,” the parent wrote. “I personally do not know any of the details about the bomb threat, but I would have felt much better about the safety of my children if they had been evacuated from the premises.”
Asked about the situation, Barbour County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Joseph Super said he and school officials assessed the situation and did not evacuate students, deciding the threat was not substantial.
The school was placed on lockdown, however.
The state gives county school systems some leeway in how they respond to such incidents.
Mike Pickens, executive director of the West Virginia Office of School Facilities, said the state sets the criteria for a crisis response plan that is then given to each school board in the county.
“The crisis response plan is then personalized for each public school in the district,” Pickens said. “The criteria cover protocol for bomb threats. School districts are able to assess the situation based on their judgment.”
The crisis response plan that Super provided to Barbour County schools states, “All bomb threats should be taken seriously, whether or not deemed valid for evacuation, and must be reported to local law enforcement agencies.”
The Barbour plan also details the process for deciding to evacuate, what to do in case of a telephone, mail or e-mail threat, as well as general crisis safety guidelines, and a check list for authorities and school officials to follow in the case of a bomb threat or other potentially dangerous situation.
Last week, Petersburg High School in Grant County reported three consecutive bomb threats in three days.
All of the student body, faculty and staff were evacuated in all three of the incidents and the school day was resumed at an undisclosed, safe location. Dr. DeEdra Bolton, superintendent of Grant County schools, declined to disclose the location due to Homeland Security protocol, but stressed that it met all of the requirements necessary to qualify as a temporary emergency public education venue.
“We take each and every threat very seriously,” Bolton said about the incidents. “Safety is our number one priority. Each one of these situations is unique and should be handled individually.”
No incendiary or potentially threatening devices were located on the premises. No injuries were reported and no suspects have yet been named, police said. The incidents are still under investigation.
But as is often the case in situations like these, the ramifications of the actions have a wider berth than initially anticipated.
“There is no question that this is an interruption to the education process,” Bolton said. “Our job is to keep every one safe and keep it as minimal an interruption as possible.”
As a precaution, the school board postponed last week’s Petersburg High School football game from Friday to Saturday, “just as it would if it was a snowday,” Bolton said, adding that while safety is the top priority, it is important to try and keep school activities running as smoothly as possible.
The Petersburg community held a public meeting, inviting parents from both Petersburg High School and Petersburg Elementary School, to communicate the board’s emergency procedures and restrictions. The students also had a similar meeting when classes resumed Monday.
“We have instituted a few extra restrictions just to remain mindful of student safety,” Bolton said. “For example, they have to sign out of their classroom when going to the bathroom.”
Bolton said that overall she has been most impressed by how everyone has handled the crisis.
“Everybody has pulled together, not just in the school but also throughout the community,” she said. “Everybody, from the emergency services, the 911 Center, the state and city police, the county sheriff’s office, the fire marshal, the prosecuting attorney, but most of all the students faculty and staff, have all been superb through this whole process.”
Despite there being no reported injuries in the bomb threats in Barbour or Grant, this type of behavior is never excusable and at best is a “tremendous interruption and waste of resources,” said Terry George, superintendent of Randolph County Schools.
“We follow the crisis response plan (in Randolph County) in these instances,” George said. “We know what we are going to do based on the guidelines in the plan. That being said, we have to handle each crisis to the specifications of the situation.”
Contact Chad Clem by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.