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Threatening Note Evolves Into an Opportunity

When a disturbing note was discovered in a high school restroom, the Peters Township School District of McMurray, Pa., responded by putting the campus’ safety preparedness plans and procedures into action.

Nice weather, “senioritis” and test days. Those are just a few of the reasons why students might send a threatening message that would capture our attention and result in the cancellation of classes. But a red flag went up when a threatening note arrived one fall day in one of the lavatories of a high school that identified a specific date in the middle of the week.

We did not know the author’s true intentions. There were no tests scheduled that day, and it wasn’t a sunny Friday – there was no apparent reason why someone would want this particular day off. The note was scratched onto a piece of tissue and left in the bathroom in a visible area. There was no mention of a bomb nor did the note threaten any one individual. What the note did mention was that people would pay on Oct. 13 – the week of homecoming.

Was this a prank? Was it a real threat? We did not know. One thing we did know was that we did not want to take any chances with the safety and welfare of our teachers and students.

Although the police and district believed the threat was not credible, we decided to use the threat to test our preparedness procedures during a crisis situation.

First, teachers were directed to complete a visual inspection of their rooms at the conclusion of the day on Oct. 12 (the day before the note said people would “pay”) and report any unusual findings to the administration.

Calls were also streaming into the high school and administrative offices from concerned parents. Secretaries were given a carefully crafted script to use during telephone inquiries that dispelled any rumors, calmed concerned parents and conveyed the district’s plans to keep the school safe on Oct. 13.

Next, the high school concluded all activities by 9 p.m. on Oct. 12, and the building was secured. Subsequently, administrators, local police, fire officials and state police, along with bomb-sniffing dogs, conducted a thorough search of the high school. The building was cleared and locked down overnight.

On the morning of Oct. 13, uniformed police officers were stationed at the entrance to and inside the high school. Students were prohibited from driving to school that day and other vehicular traffic was checked as it entered the campus. Students were not permitted to enter the building until 7 a.m., at which time administrators directed students into the cafeteria. Students were then called by homeroom into the lobby.

Long tables had been set up as a staging area in the lobby. Under teacher supervision, students were asked to empty the contents of backpacks and purses onto the tables where the items were checked.

Teachers also inspected their classrooms, and police searched the cafeteria holding area one last time for anything suspicious. Uniformed officers remained on-site throughout the day and were present at all homecoming activities throughout the weekend.

The district communicated its plan to teachers, students and parents via a letter that was disseminated to students to carry home on Oct. 12 and messages that were posted on the district’s Web site and on the district’s cable channel. Parents on the district’s E-mail list were also sent notification of the plan.

As a result of the strategic planning, Oct. 13 progressed as a relatively normal day. Students were able to start class within an hour of their arrival, and homecoming proceeded without incident.

After homecoming week ended, a debriefing was conducted and, notwithstanding the need to make a few changes, our group agreed that the drill was a success.

The author of our note has never been identified, but as a result of his or her prank, we have now identified a comprehensive procedure that can be used with confidence should we receive a similar threat in the future.

Cara Zanella is communications coordinator/safety chair at Peters Township School District in McMurray, Pa. She can be reached at zanellac@pt-sd.org.

Editor’s note: “As I See It” features the views and opinions of campus stakeholders – from police to administrators, teaching staff to students, consultants to vendors. The views expressed are solely those of the author. If you would like to submit an article or respond to someone else’s, E-mail: robin.gray@bobit.com; or write: Campus Safety, Attn: Editor, 3520 Challenger St., Torrance, CA 90503.

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