Why were 5th graders with vinegar and cinnamon suspended from school?

Fifth graders in New Jersey plotted detonating what they thought was a bomb, which turned out to be nonexplosive, at a nearby high school, another sign that schools are learning how to deal with difficult threats among increasingly young students.

Elaine Thompson/AP
A kindergartner works on programming during a weekly computer science lesson at Marshall Elementary School in Marysville, Wash. Schools are trying to deal with threats from younger students, as seen by a fake bomb threat at an elementary school in New Jersey Dec. 2.

The students were all aged 10 and 11 years. They were too young, fortunately, to have the chemistry background to make a bomb that could actually explode, but old enough, it seemed, to want to try it.

The students were suspended during an investigation into whether they plotted to bomb a high school, as schools learn to cope with concerns about violence among increasingly younger students. 

Officials at Clifton Elementary School in New Jersey called the police on Wednesday morning after finding a written plan by fifth-graders to detonate a bomb. Police began investigating and discovered a suspicious device that turned out to contain a harmless concoction of vinegar and cinnamon, according to Paul Milo of NJ Advance Media, although other sources have not confirmed its composition.

"It was not a prank," Bracken told NJ Advance Media. "They had a legitimate plan."

The fake bomb could not have hurt anyone, but the students intended to use it at a field trip to a high school, Albina Sportelli reported for the Clifton Journal. The students had a plan that they believed would detonate an explosive device, said Detective Sgt. Robert Bracken, spokesman for the Police Department in Clifton.

"They didn’t have the right equipment, but the intent was there," Mr. Bracken told the Clifton Journal. “This is very disturbing."

Police talked with the students and released them to their parents. The school has suspended the students for now, and prosecutors must review the case before making any decisions about further action, Bracken told NJ Advance Media.

A teacher met students at the school doors to usher them in on Thursday morning, reported Stefanie Dazio for the Record. Parents of other students at the school have been surprised, and some said they wanted more notice from the school of such incidents.

Carrie Gould said she hesitated to bring her fourth-grader to school Thursday, but family members convinced her it would be even safer than usual with heightened security. 

"It's scary," she told the Record. "I know it's everywhere but it's too close to home."

The incident at Clifton Elementary School did conform to what is generally understood about those who plan violent acts in schools,  according to a US Department of Education school safety guide released in June 2013.

The plot was pre-planned, involved other students, and was ultimately halted by someone outside of law enforcement, despite their prompt response. The "most useful tools a school can develop" are teams that encourage communication between teachers, school officials, and law enforcement to work together. Clifton Elementary School employed just such a multidisciplinary approach in this incident.

Carlos Oliveros, who lives near the school and whose grandson attends as a fourth-grader, said Clifton Elementary School was usually "tough on kids," so this incident surprised him. He told the Record that school officials had told his grandson to stop making a gun sign with his hand during a recess game of "Cowboys and Indians," which he found excessive. 

In his opinion, administrators made the right call in this difficult situation, though, as the lines to protect student safety can be difficult to draw. 

"These days you can't over-react. You have to take everything serious," he told the Record. "I'm glad the teachers took action."

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