No laughing matter

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Penalties severe in bomb hoax

Little is said as the teacher walks into the classroom. She directs her students to stand up and form a line behind her.

After a few minutes of standing, the principal comes over the intercom. "All fifth grade students, follow your teacher outside to the kickball field," he says.

After they make an orderly exit the principal continues on, giving the same directions to each grade.

After about 10 minutes, the entire school is seated, grouped together by classroom, within the edges of the kickball field.

Then someone notices police cars and an officer leading a dog inside the school. The individual whispers of each student become a loud roar as each makes their prediction as to exactly what is going on.

Then to quiet the crowd, one of the teachers confirms suspicions -- it's a bomb threat.

Instead of being frightened the kids cheer. They've been through this before. To them, it's someone's prank that gets them out of class.

Bomb threats are nothing new to schools. In fact, they are quite prevalent.

In a survey taken by 8,152 public schools across the nation, during the 1999-2000 school year, there were over 15,000 threats involving bombs or anthrax, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

An article published by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing said there are no current national statistics on bomb threats; however, because in recent years it is increasingly more of a problem, many states have pushed for more severe penalties for making false bomb threats.

In Arkansas bomb threats are considered a form of felony terroristic threatening for both adults and juveniles. Punishments vary with the most severe being sentenced to up to five years in prison and paying up to $5,000 in fines. For juveniles school expulsion is likely.

Approximately 90 percent of bomb threats in schools turn out to be pranks. But because of the numerous violent acts that have occurred in school settings throughout the past decade, every threat must be taken seriously.

This is the case with the recent slew of bomb threats in Baxter County schools.

In the past month alone, there have been four different bomb threats made to schools throughout the district.

The most recent of the threats occurred at two different schools on the same day.

Oct. 9, around 9:30 a.m. a Cotter teacher found a note containing a bomb threat in a high school boys' restroom, according to reports.

All 600 Cotter students were evacuated from school property to a nearby church where they waited until 11:20 a.m. when authorities deemed the threat a false alarm.

Just minutes later another bomb threat was reported at Norfork schools.

Authorities said, around 11:45 a.m. a note was found written in a high school girls' restroom that warned "Bomb @ Norfok 10-9 12:00."

School buildings were evacuated and police and emergency personnel searched the building. Elementary students resumed classes around 1:15 p.m. and the junior high and high school returned around 1:45 p.m.

Oct. 4 two threats were made at two different campuses that led to the evacuation of the buildings -- Mountain Home Junior High and Pinkston Middle School.

It has since been alleged that two male juveniles, ages 15 and 16, were responsible for the threat at Cotter, and a 17-year-old female juvenile is alleged to have caused the false alarm at Norfork.

The three juveniles were all charged with communicating a false alarm, a Class D felony.

Two 14-year-old males are the supposed perpetrators of the Mountain Home threat.

They were charged with terroristic threatening, a misdemeanor, because the threats were not made while they were at school.

There is an ongoing investigation of the Pinkston Middle School incident.

Though in the three solved cases, the threat was a false alarm, and the juvenile perpetrators said they meant no harm, serious action was taken.

Fulton County Sheriff Walter Dillinger said any threat of causing harm is serious business. "If someone called in a false threat, even if they meant it as a prank, that's real serious," Dillinger said.

He said, in such a scenario authorities have to prepare for the worst. "(Bomb threats) are a real serious thing, and in today's time you just don't know if it's real or not."

Perhaps it was intended to be an innocent prank, but Baxter County authorities didn't find it too amusing -- and neither will local police agencies.

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