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Local cops will patrol schools to reassure community

April 29, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON and KIMBERLY YAKOWSKIs

Police officers will be at every middle and high school in Washington County on Monday in an effort to reassure a community troubled by ongoing rumors and threats of violence.

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The Washington County Board of Education asked law enforcement agencies to increase police presence in and around schools starting Thursday.

The action is not in response to any specific threat of violence, said Executive Director of Support Services William McKinley.

"We have a lot of concern out there," he said. "This is a safeguard. It's a way for us to assure people we're doing everything we can. We're tuned in to what's going on."

Bomb threats, gossip about students with guns and e-mails with menacing messages have increased since the April 20 shooting in Littleton, Colo. The rampage at Columbine High School left 15 dead and 23 wounded.

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There were several threats at Washington County schools this week, but investigations revealed they were only hoaxes and rumors.

McKinley said he did not want parents to be alarmed if they see police vehicles or officers at the schools.

"I really don't want people to think police are in the schools because of a specific threat," he said.

Dates without apparent significance have been circulating through the regional grapevine.

"May 3 and 10 have popped up as days something might happen, we don't know what," McKinley said.

In a letter sent home with students on Thursday, North High Principal David F. Reeder urged parents not to give in to rumors and fears.

Reeder, in the letter, said that on the day following the Columbine High School shooting, "A fork, which had a threat to the school written on the handle, was turned into the administration."

"The student who wrote the threat was identified and suspended ... and we believe this was a case of a student not 'thinking,' not a malicious intent," Reeder said in the letter.

On Thursday morning, school officials received a copy of an e-mail that had been passed to a Northern Middle School student, who retyped the information and sent it to another student, Reeder said. "We are contacting parents of students whose names appear on the list as a precautionary measure," Reeder said in the letter.

The e-mail stated that the students were "doomed," Reeder said Thursday night. The list contained the names of about 60 students, most of whom were from North High, he said.

He said the students whose names were on the list did not fall into any specific religious, racial or socio-economic group.

"We looked for similarities or trends. We couldn't find any detectable," he said.

Most of those on the list are ninth- and tenth-graders, with an equal number of males and females, according to Reeder.

Because of this, "it makes us think it originated at the middle school," he said.

Reeder said such incidents at North High and other area schools could be stopped if the media gave it less attention and if strict penalties for such behavior were imposed.

"Examples need to made," he said.

He said students who laugh about bomb threats must stop.

"People need to know that in this atmosphere, it's not funny. This is serious business," he said.

The School Board maintains that the schools are safe. On Wednesday, the board established a hot line that parents and students can call with concerns or information.

The Hagerstown Police Department is staffing offices at each school in the city, according to Chief Dale Jones. "There is safety in the schools and people can feel comfortable there," Jones said.

Maryland State Police and the Washington County Sheriff's Department are covering schools in the rest of the county.

"We'll be making more checks than normal," said Sheriff Charles Mades.

"We are going to be increasing our patrols at as many schools as we can cover for the sole purpose of alleviating concern," said Lt. Bruce Smith, commander of the state police barracks at Hagerstown.

City police will cover city schools Monday, McKinley said. State police will cover high schools and sheriff's deputies will check middle schools.

Each agency will monitor school activities until the community's unease subsides, McKinley said.

Reeder's letter noted that on Monday, state police were asked to check the North High building with trained dogs that can detect explosives, gunpowder and the like.

"The check was done to verify that our building is secure. We want to be proactive in our efforts to assure the students, staff and community that the school is a safe environment," the letter said.

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