Officials Get Advice On Bomb Threats It's A Judgment Call, Camden County Educators Learned.

Posted: May 01, 1998

VOORHEES — In a county whose bomb squad has responded to 116 bomb threats in schools since January 1997, about 40 school officials gathered yesterday seeking guidance.

If a bomb threat is phoned in, is it best to evacuate the building immediately and lose precious class time? Or should officials wait until they've searched the building and have a better sense of the risk?

The answer, supplied by the Camden County Sheriff's Department: It depends.

There is no single right way for a school to respond, county bomb squad members told the officials, who gathered at a meeting organized by the sheriff's office at the request of County Superintendent Daniel R. Mastrobuono.

``But you can't just do nothing,'' said Officer Chris DiVirgilio of the bomb squad. ``What you do is a judgment call.''

That call should be made by the principal, said Sgt. Glenn Stephens of the bomb squad. There are, however, some guidelines all schools should follow, Stephens said: Whoever receives the bomb threat should try to keep the caller on the phone as long as possible and get as much information as possible. And the police should be notified.

``We just want to make sure that everybody is on the same page,'' said Camden County Sheriff Michael McLaughlin. ``What we were concerned with is there are people out there that did not have a real policy and didn't know how to respond.''

The bomb squad officers urged school officials to consider what they called a ``covert search'' - combing the building for any suspicious device without disrupting students or teachers when a threat comes in. That cuts down on lost class time and the expense of evacuation.

This is essentially how Cherry Hill schools handle bomb threats, of which there have been two this year, said Michael Nuzzo, the district's director of security.

Cherry Hill's bomb-threat procedure involves announcing the threat over the school's public-address system using a special code, notifying administrators and local police, and having maintenance and security personnel search the building while classes go on undisturbed, Nuzzo said.

In general, he said, the buildings are not evacuated unless a suspicious device is found.

But some school officials at yesterday's meeting said they were uncomfortable with that approach - and they feared parents might accuse them of recklessness.

And what about the risks involved with moving some 2,000 students and holding them somewhere? asked Frank Palatucci, principal of Highland Regional High School. In Jonesboro, Ark., four middle school students and a teacher were shot to death in March, allegedly by two students, after being evacuated because of a false fire alarm.

Good point, said Stephens. ``You may be moving them and evacuating them right into the target area,'' he said. ``That's why I'm advocating a cursory search before you evacuate.''

At Overbrook Senior High School in Pine Hill, where a dizzying 25 bomb threats have been called in this school year, evacuation is the policy, especially since a bomb-like device was found on the roof after a threat in February.

Since districts spend several thousand dollars for lost work time when they evacuate because of a threat, one administrator suggested that schools consider suing those found responsible in addition to pressing criminal charges.

At Overbrook, the Lower Camden County Regional District's police have solved 21 of the 25 incidents and made 14 arrests.

``These kids are not just getting a slap on the hand,'' said Martin Dunn, director of security for the district.

In all cases, the students have been expelled, and the district has filed criminal charges. But still, the bomb threats persist.

``It's still got me baffled,'' said Dunn, who has 25 years of police experience. ``We've got a mix of good kids, bad kids, spur-of-the-moment kids. I've been unable to nail down any kind of profile.''

Dunn urged other districts to investigate telephone technologies that could help trace threats that are called in or even block calls in some cases. Lower Camden's phones, he said, will not accept calls from phones that have their caller-identification blocked.

``Our position is, if someone is calling a school, there's no need for secrecy,'' Dunn said.

Lower Camden officials said that students have lost more than five days of instructional time while they lingered on the football field waiting for the building to be searched. School officials said that time cannot be made up because of the expense of paying the teachers per diem to extend the school year.

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