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Published: Saturday, 12/22/2012

High alert: Local threats on schools so far unfounded, but educators, police aren’t taking chances

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Springfield Local Schools officials searched students’ bags, Rossford police took up positions around the city’s junior and senior high schools after unsubstantiated reports of a gunman, and educators everywhere else kept a wary eye for any signs of trouble with parents and students still jittery in the aftermath of the massacre last week at a Connecticut elementary school.

Nationwide, school districts continued to handle unsubstantiated threats. While anxiety was still high after the Newtown school massacre, local threats were unfounded but educators and police did not take chances.

Kathryn Hott, Springfield Schools superintendent, said social media misinformation fueled the need for heightened security.

“It was primarily the high school, so our administrators went to every classroom,” Ms. Hott said. “It was unsubstantiated but in order for them to be safe and come to school today, we decided we would have the sheriff’s department come in and we would check backpacks.”

She said students at the district’s high school were cooperative with the security searches.

“We had a lot of kids who thanked us for taking those measures,” Ms. Hott said.

Rossford Police Chief Glenn B. Goss, Sr., said joint police and school investigations “revealed the information was not factual,” but he decided to keep officers from the midnight shift on overtime to set a perimeter around the campus to start the school day.

“Several school districts are dealing with similar matters in their respective jurisdictions, and Rossford is no different,” Chief Goss said in a written statement. He said parents and students began calling school officials Thursday after seeing or hearing of a Facebook message that talked about a possible fight, gang war, knives, and guns. The message apparently was related to another school district.

Ken Trump, head of a school safety consulting firm in Cleveland, said increased numbers of threats are normal after a high-profile incident.

“The majority tend to be poor decisions by young people who don’t realize their comments and actions are going to lead to ... prosecution,” Mr. Trump said. “There is a small fringe group of individuals already on the edge, already predisposed with mental health issues, who could possibly carry out a threat, so all the threats have to be treated seriously even though we know many will fall into that first category.”

Toledo police said that threats made with a computer are traceable, and police departments have entire sections dedicated to computer analysis. The Toledo Police Department has a computer crimes unit.

Toledo police — specifically officers and command officers in administrative positions — were out at various schools Friday for “high visibility,” said Sgt. Joe Heffernan.

There wasn’t a threat or belief of immediate danger, but officials decided Thursday night to increase police presence at schools as a precaution. Extra officers were specifically sent to Whitmer High School after someone reportedly threatened to shoot people at the school’s talent show Friday.

Sergeant Heffernan said there were no reported problems at any of the schools. He declined to say how many officers were involved in the increased coverage.

The National Rifle Association broke its silence on last week’s shooting rampage. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called for armed police officers to be posted in every American school.

Reactions of parents, teachers, and educators ranged from hesitation to anger.

“I think there needs to a bigger solution than just posting an armed guard at every door because there is an element of this society who wants to do this,” said Perrysburg schools superintendent Tom Hosler. “Are we really just addressing the symptoms or we really interested in finding a cure?”

Like most schools in the Toledo area, Perrysburg had extra police officers on hand.

Mr. Hosler said it would be easier to find a district that did not have some element of a threat this week.

“[Thursday] night we had some potential threats that were being made on social media,” he said. “We worked with students and Perrysburg police to walk backwards on these types of statements and we were not able to find any student or threat we could follow up on.”

Mr. Hosler said schools have to “walk a tightrope of providing a safe environment and not creating a prison environment.”

In response to the social media chatter of a gun threat, a police cruiser was in the parking lot at Perrysburg High School as students arrived Friday morning.

Mr. Trump said schools are being bombarded with questions from parents about school security.

“You have a situation where there is a heightened awareness, perhaps a hyper vigilance among school and law enforcement officials, so people are going to be highly sensitive and highly reactive to these types of threats,” he said.

Unsubstantiated reports Thursday also induced Monroe Public Schools and several other Michigan schools, including those in Battle Creek and at public schools in Genesee and Lapeer counties, to cancel classes Friday.

Blade staff writer Taylor Dungjen contributed to this report.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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