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Wave of threats rattle Western Pa. schools early in year

Jamie Martines
| Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, 10:06 p.m.

What starts as a rumor on social media or a date scrawled on a bathroom stall could turn into a tragedy. When faced with violent threats, many local school districts aren't taking chances.

That was the case in the Bethel Park School District last week, where administrators decided to cancel classes on Thursday, Oct. 12, and Monday, Oct. 16, because of written and online threats against several school buildings.

Classes were held Friday, but about 24 percent of students — 994 out of 4,150 — were absent. The district usually has a 96 percent attendance rate. The largest number of absentees was at the high school, where about a quarter of the student body — 407 students out of 1,297 — stayed home.

Since the start of the 2017-18 school year in late August, at least five districts in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties have experienced or investigated rumors of violent threats targeting students or school buildings. Classes have been in session about seven weeks.

State police do not keep data on threats specifically targeting schools, said Cpl. Adam Reed, information officer. But state police do work with school administrators to develop safety plans, he said, adding that schools can be difficult to protect because there are usually many people at risk.

Threats brought to the attention of administrators at Hempfield Area and Yough School Districts in Westmoreland County and in the West Jefferson Hills School District in Allegheny County last month turned out to be rumors. They were handled by administrators and local law enforcement without disrupting the school day. Penn Hills High School was locked down and students were sent home early last month after a rumor surfaced that a student planned to bring a gun to school. The most recent situation, at Bethel Park, closed the school for two days.

As an increasing number of threats are discovered and circulate online or on social media, Reed said it doesn't change the way they're evaluated.

"We don't take the threats any less serious, however they're made, whether it's a note or a Facebook post," Reed said.

Some reports show that violent threats targeting schools are on the rise nationwide.

A 2016 study conducted by the National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based school safety consulting firm, showed that 73 percent of violent threats against schools were shooting or bomb threats. That's more than double the number of threats news outlets reported the year before, the study said. About 37 percent of threats in 2016 were made electronically, with 28 percent of those appearing on social media.

According to the study, Pennsylvania had one of the highest rates of threats targeting schools, trailing only Ohio and California.

But locally, it's difficult to get a handle on whether the number of threats targeting schools is truly rising.

Data from the Department of Education Office of Safe Schools show that the total number of threats — including bomb, gun and other violent threats — has been consistent during the past 10 years, averaging about 650 threats per year.

In Allegheny County, violent threats have consistently decreased yearly from the 2009-10 school year, the data show. But in Westmoreland County, violent threats have remained consistent, averaging 12 to 13 threats per year over the same period.

State data from the 2016-17 school year will be available by Nov. 1.

Schools are required to report these and other school safety statistics to the state Department of Education yearly, according to Pennsylvania School Code, which is written and voted on by state House and Senate lawmakers.

Beyond distinguishing between bomb threats and other terroristic threats, the Office for Safe Schools does not track the nature of violent threats against schools, according to Director Carol Kuntz. The Office for Safe Schools is one of the primary resources for local districts on school safety guidelines and plans, she said.

If there's any concern, administrators at most districts, including Yough, immediately contact local law enforcement.

"It doesn't have to necessarily be a direct threat, it could just be something that is concerning," said Yough Superintendent Janet Sardon, adding that parents will always be notified if there is a direct threat.

But not all situations, like the potential threats in September, end up being a direct threat to students or school buildings, Sardon said. In the case it is, a letter or "all-call," the same system used for letting parents know about snow delays, will be issued.

"If I send a letter or an all-call about an emergency or threatening situation, I want people to really pay attention," Sardon said.

School administrators say keeping parents in the loop is a balance of sharing information that's accurate and complete, without causing alarm.

"It requires decision making that is made with gathering facts in a manner as quickly as you can, knowing at the same time that students have access to their social media devices," said Hempfield Area Superintendent Tammy Wolicki.

She encouraged parents to contact the school directly if they hear about threats, both to alert administrators and to vet rumors.

"Sometimes it provides us with information that we may not be aware of," she said.

Following the situation that led to lockdown at Penn Hills High School in September, Penn Hills school board President Erin Vecchio encouraged school administrators to file criminal charges against those responsible for the threats.

"We actually believe threats will become less common when students come to realize the amount of evidence available to law enforcement that expanded technology provides and the steep restitution costs that can be billed to a family for police time and effort," Penn Hills Superintendent Nancy Hines said.

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. If federal officials are involved, penalties can increase to up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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