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Bomb threats disrupt school

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Bomb threats scrawled across bathroom walls in Spotsylvania County forced students out of class four out of five school days last week.

The threats, made at Chancellor Middle and High schools, are unique, said Spotsylvania schools spokeswoman Rene Daniels, because the school buildings are connected.

One Chancellor Middle schooler faces felony charges, expulsion and civil fines of several thousand dollars following the string of bomb threats, Capt. Jeff Pearce of the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office said Saturday.

Pearce said that the student, who was charged Friday, made one of the threats, meaning the investigation is ongoing and more students could face the same penalties.

A court date and school disciplinary hearing have been set.

“My hopes are that these incidents will stop,” said Dawn Shelley, who represents the Chancellor District. “We are continuing to work with the Sheriff’s Office to stop them. I hope the people who are making these threats know the ramifications of their actions, because there will be consequences when they are caught.”

Making a bomb threat is a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years of confinement in a detention facility and/or a $2,500 fine.

Pearce said that if authorities arrest a student, the student’s family could also be held responsible and face hefty civil fines for the cost of the investigation.

Two of last week’s threats were made at the middle school and two were found at the high school, which are connected so both must be evacuated if one is threatened.

The first threat was discovered Monday.

On Tuesday, students had to be held on buses because of cold weather, disrupting bus service to other county schools as well.

During Thursday’s threat, police first cleared the gym and auditorium in the buildings to hold students inside and make sure the evacuation procedure did not become predictable for anyone wanting to empty the school.

Friday’s threat was similar to the first three, and also disrupted bus service. Students and staff left the building while the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office swept the building with assistance from Stafford and Culpeper bomb units.

The Sheriff’s Office has doubled the number of school resource officers in the affected schools and is having those officers reach out to students about their safety.

“Our success rate is very high in these cases,” said Lt. Eddie Peck, who is investigating the threats.

He said the investigation is active, and he wants parents to know authorities are taking the threats seriously. Anyone with information about the Chancellor bomb threats is asked to contact the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office at 540/507-7200.

MOST SCHOOL BOMB THREATS ARE HOAXES

While it’s difficult to track statistics on school bomb threats, the Department of Justice estimates that about 90 percent are hoaxes.

So far, the Sheriff’s Office has responded to five bomb threats in Spotsylvania schools during the current school year. The Chancellor threats account for four of those.

The other occurred at Post Oak Middle School, but was made after school hours. The building was cleared before students returned the next day.

Eileen Cox, whose son attends Chancellor Middle, was frustrated by the lack of communication from the division following the threats.

She said similar threats occurred when her son attended Wilderness Elementary School, but then she always knew what was going on.

“He’s frustrated,” she said about her son. “He said it is ridiculous that they’re missing school since they already have to make up time for snow.”

In 2000, when a similar rash of threats was made at Spotsylvania and Chancellor high schools, then-Superintedent Sue F. Burgess planned to have the responsible students expelled, charged with a felony and handed a bill covering a day’s pay for every employee at the school.

Stafford County school officials and law enforcement officers know too well how a scribbled message can create havoc.

Last year, Stafford High School was evacuated several times because of bomb threats scrawled on the bathroom walls.

The Sheriff’s Office sent deputies and bomb-sniffing dogs to the school.

“We’re going to respond every time, and we respond as if it’s the real thing,” said William Kennedy, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office.

In December, a 15-year-old Stafford High School student was charged with two counts of threatening to bomb, a Class 5 felony that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. That case should go to trial in March, Kennedy said.

The police used school security cameras and witness statements to build a case against the student who was charged.

“It’s just a senseless crime,” Kennedy said. “You’re disturbing the academic day, you’re calling in law enforcement personnel.”

He said it isn’t possible to determine the cost of the bomb threats, because the deputies would be working that shift anyway. But the time they spend searching the school for explosives could be used differently.

In the past three years, the Stafford Sheriff’s Office has arrested seven juveniles for making bomb threats.

“In each case the juvenile has pleaded guilty or been found guilty,” Kennedy said.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976, lestes@freelancestar.com 

THREAT PROMPTS EXTRA SECURITY AT LOCUST GROVE SCHOOLS

BY DAN McFARLAND / THE FREE LANCE–STAR

Orange County officials plan extra security measures at the combined Locust Grove Middle/Elementary School in the wake of a threat to bomb the school Monday.

A message was found on a bathroom stall wall late last week, stating “I am going to bomb this school March 3.” It is the second such threat at the school this year, which sent students home early in the previous incident Jan. 16.

Gene Kotulka, director of Student Services, sent a letter to parents explaining the situation and outlining the school’s planned response.

The school administration and county Sheriff’s Office are taking the incident seriously and are actively investigating it, he said.

While the message has been assessed as being “transient” or not credible, he said a number of measures are planned to protect students Monday.

The Sheriff’s Office will sweep the building using bomb-sniffing dogs prior to opening the school, and extra staff will be provided by the sheriff and school administration. Additionally, students’ backpacks may be searched upon entry.

“The safety of our children remains our top priority,” Kotulka said, “and we shall remain vigilant to ensure our children have the opportunity to learn in a safe and orderly environment.”

Anyone with information that could assist in the investigation is asked to call the Orange County Sheriff’s Office at 540/672-1200.

Dan McFarland: dmcfarland@freelancestar.com 

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