At schools, a hailstorm of threats

After Littleton, Colo., principals and police take no risks in new

Murderous threats scrawled on the girls' bathroom mirrors in Scituate, R.I. In Cadillac, Mich., an e-mail warned of a student massacre at a middle school. On pastoral Bainbridge Island in Washington, classes were canceled after a threatening note was affixed ominously to a high-school door.

In the 18 days since two students in Littleton, Colo., terrorized a school - and a nation - institutions that are normally refuges of safety and innocent learning have now become the target of an unprecedented spate of threats.

To be sure, most turn out to be pranks. But school officials, who before might have paused to weigh the evidence, are now taking no risks as they deal with a dark and disruptive side effect of the worst school shooting in US history. Concerned about "copy cat" crimes, they're calling police, evacuating classrooms, and, in some cases, closing their doors temporarily.

Even the experts, who expected a smattering of school disruptions after the Littleton massacre, have been caught off guard by the magnitude of the reaction. "The Littleton aftermath is the worst I've ever seen," says Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Washington.

"It's like an epidemic, and it's out of control," agrees Peter Blauvelt of the National Alliance for Safe Schools in College Park, Md.

A surprising aspect of the aftermath is its scope, encompassing large and small school districts. Mr. Hunter, recently in rural Michigan, said high schools with only 300 students had received bomb threats.

School officials are also surprised because this is the season when students are getting ready for proms, senior skip day, or class trips. During exams, schools sometimes receive threats, but final exams are still a few weeks away.

"In the past, the principal would evaluate [a threat] and ask, 'Are we having a test today?' " says Hunter. "But Littleton has resulted in a real change in school policy - these things are taken very seriously now."

Psychologists say the vast bulk of the threats are student pranks or efforts to get out of school.

"The easiest explanation is that students have learned that if you call in a threat, you get a few hours or a day off from school," says Raymond Lorion, head of the psychology department at Ohio University in Athens. "A small fraction are kids who feel marginalized and are using it as a way to strike back."

That appears to be the case in Fairport, N.Y., where police arrested a 12-year-old boy who had acquired bombmaking materials and kept a notebook detailing his plans. According to Police Chief Brian Page, the boy had planned to set off the bombs around Halloween. The boy, considered brilliant, was short in stature and some students picked on him.

In Monroe County, where Fairport is located, schools have received seven bomb scares in the past two weeks, and police made arrests on all of them. Some were traced through caller ID, or by tracing an e-mail to the sender. In one case, two police officers, while they were talking to each other, watched a young boy nervously making a phone call from a pay phone. The policemen joked, wouldn't it be amazing if he were calling in a bomb threat. Moments later, their radios broadcast a school bomb threat, and they arrested the boy.

School safety officials say police need to respond aggressively to threats. "It has a dampening effect," says Mr. Blauvelt. In fact, after Monroe County police made their arrests - and publicized them - the bomb threats stopped.

Some officials believe the kids are playing up to the media. In Phoenix, officials watched as students first called in bomb threats to the school, then a few days later to the police, and finally directly to the media. Jim Cummings, spokesman for the Phoenix Union High School District, says one day his pager went off at 6:30 a.m. - before schools were open. It was a radio station, wanting to know about 15 kids who were arrested because they were armed. "Of course, the kids didn't exist," he says.

Such rumors, however, circulate from student to parent. In Peoria, Ariz., the school district was flooded with calls from concerned parents. One parent had heard about a so-called hit list of 100 students who would be killed. The reality was that a student had created a Web site that listed 100 most-hated things. "It included the Spice Girls, Barney, and two of our students," says Matthew Licardi, a community specialist for the district. "Somehow, this turned into 100 students being killed."

PARENTS are more than ready for school systems to settle down. In Bethlehem, Pa., Linda Cameron's teenage son and daughter have had several bomb threats at their schools, one as recently as Tuesday. She says children who need help should get it. But if a child is doing it for publicity or to get out of school, "I would ring his neck."

Authorities hope that students also get tired of disruptions and turn in the hoaxers. "Kids always brag about it. Someone knows who is doing it," says Blauvelt.

That was the case in Phoenix, where a bomb threat kept 1,700 children out of school during a test day. The child who phoned in the hoax was caught after he bragged to his friends that he did it to get out of testing. The testing was postponed for a week. The student was suspended.

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