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Penn Hills school official on bomb hoaxes, other threats: 'I've had enough'

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, 5:18 p.m.
The main entrance at Penn Hills High School.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The main entrance at Penn Hills High School.

Don't even think about phoning in a fake bomb or gun threat to get out of class in the Penn Hills School District, school board President Erin Vecchio warned.

“I've had enough,” Vecchio said Friday.

On Thursday, officials placed the high school on lockdown while police searched the campus and then released students early because of a rumor that someone threatened to bring a gun to school. Several students had reported the concern to a school resource officer, who passed along the information to police Chief Howard Burton.

Police are investigating. At least one Penn Hills student has been “confirmed to have had involvement” and is being disciplined according to the student conduct code, district spokeswoman Teresita Kolenchak said Friday by email.

“From now on, if this is proven to be a hoax, the person responsible will be prosecuted to the max,” Vecchio said. “I'm not going to put up with it anymore.”

She directed the administration to track down the sources of false threats and prosecute any individuals found responsible “to the fullest extent of the law” — meaning filing criminal charges.

Under state law, charges such as making terroristic and bomb threats carry sentences of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. When federal officials get involved, penalties can increase to up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“We take all potential threats seriously,” said Kolenchak, who deferred to police for updates on Thursday's incident.

“Once something like this happens, districts are vulnerable to copycat incidents,” she said. “We want to make it clear to both students and families that we are committed to focused learning in a safe environment. We are just trying to set the tone given it is the start of a new school year.”

Burton did not immediately return a Friday call for comment. He said Thursday that after determining the campus was safe authorities still were “trying to get to the bottom of it.”

Vecchio announced her zero-tolerance bomb threat stance by publishing a statement to the district's website.

“We want to assure you that safety remains a No. 1 concern, and we have directed Administration to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any individual found to be compromising safety and/or creating a disruption to school operations,” Vecchio wrote.

“We have had a great start to the new school year and will not tolerate student conduct that interferes with our shared goals to offer a quality education to the children of our community.”

Penn Hills still is healing from fatal violence in March , when 16-year-old Deven Holloway was shot to death near basketball courts at Linton Middle School.

“Believe me, we will handle every situation as it is truth,” said Vecchio, “but we will find out if it isn't truth and this was all setup.”

Vecchio further lamented how fake threats waste a significant amount of time, resources and taxpayer money. Thursday's early-release at the high school required officials to scramble to get buses to show up early and took police patrolmen off the street.

Neighboring districts have had the same problem. In March, six bomb threats that turned out to be false prompted Plum School District to adopt new safety measures , including random student searches upon arrival.

Penn Hills High went on lockdown after discovering a “threatening note” in early May , and when officials found a bomb threat posted in a girls' restroom in April .

“Every day it was 80 degrees out when it happened,” Vecchio said.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha. Staff writer Mike DiVittorio contributed.

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