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School violence rumors abound in area

April 28, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Parents and students should report all rumors and any unusual incidents to their schools or police to ensure safety in Washington County public schools and help put to rest rumors of weapons and bombs, area law enforcement and school officials said Wednesday.

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Rumors of pending violence have spread locally since April 20 when two teenagers went on a murderous rampage in their Colorado high school, killing 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

Since then, educators and law enforcement agencies in Washington County have received many calls from concerned parents reporting rumors of bomb threats and of students bringing weapons to school.

On Wednesday afternoon, school officials put into service a special hotline number that parents and students may call to report safety concerns.

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Joseph Millward, supervisor of pupil personnel and guidance for the Washington County Board of Education, said he has fielded more than 100 calls during the past week, all relating to about a dozen specific rumors.

"We're checking on every lead and not one single rumor has turned out to be true," Millward said. "There have been no guns or bombs. We're dealing with a horrible rumor mill. The schools are just about as safe as could be."

Rumors and reports of threats have led to increased security measures at Washington County schools and have frightened students.

According to Millward, Maryland State Police, the Washington County Sheriff's Department and previous reports, since April 20 in Washington County:

-- Bomb sniffing police dogs went through three secondary schools before classes started Monday morning.

-- Police are considering pressing criminal charges against a 13-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy who they allege sent threatening e-mail messages to other students. Police also are investigating between 25 and 30 other threats made via e-mail or the Internet, Millward said.

-- Selective locker searches have been conducted at various schools.

-- From 20 to 25 children were pulled out of Boonsboro Middle School on Friday by parents who heard a rumor that a student had brought a gun to school. The rumor turned out to be unfounded.

-- Authorities with the state Fire Marshals Office say a 14-year-old boy made a bomb threat at Smithsburg High School last week. No bomb was found.

-- Hagerstown City Police, Maryland State Police or Washington County Sheriff's Department deputies have visited each school in Washington County daily.

-- School principals have reviewed their emergency plans that detail how they would evacuate the schools or lock them down.

Millward cautioned against taking rumors too seriously or too lightly.

"What we do mind is people not checking things out. Taking the rumors as gospel," Millward said. "When parents hear something don't pooh-pooh it. Call us.

"We really would like to have their help. We're not going to write them off. It might take us a while to get back to them. But that's because we're dealing with so many calls," Millward said.

Millward also made a plea for the help of students.

"The kids are the ones who hear things first," he said. "Tell a teacher or principal. Don't worry about being a snitch. Their names are confidential and it's the responsible thing to do to let the adults know."

"You have to keep an open line of communication between parents and children. And don't hesitate to get a third party involved," Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades said.

Jenny Belliotti, president of the Washington County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, said that "Parents have to sit down with kids and talk about how damaging the rumors can be.

"By spreading or starting rumors we're having children and parents frightened. It's taking away from the feeling of security," she said.

Belliotti said she was pleased with the response of school officials, and said parents should feel safe sending their children to Washington County schools.

"Remember that in the school system from the teachers to the superintendent they have kids in the school system and they wouldn't put them in danger," said Belliotti, whose children are in the third and sixth grades.

-- School violence hotline numbers

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