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Baseless School Threat Rumors Cause Southern Maine Police to Mobilize
12/20/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon
Sign Outside Portland High School

After chasing what he calls "baseless rumors" for the past 24 hours, Colonel Robert Williams of the Maine State Police said there's no credible threat that someone is threatening harm to schools in Cumberland and York Counties. But school officials in Portland and Gorham took the potential for violence seriously.

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This aggressive and very public response is all part of a new era of sensitivity around school safety.

The alleged threat is believed to have originated in a text message earlier this week targeting students at Gorham High School on Friday, December 21. Speaking at a news conference, Gorham Police Chief Ron Shepard said the rumor then spread to students at other area schools.

"Investigators quickly began interviewing students and teachers and command staff from each police agency worked with the school officials and completed a threat assessment based on the information that we had available," Shepard said.

In the past, an unconfirmed rumor about a vague threat probably wouldn't have generated such a public response. Media outlets typically avoid reporting bomb threats, for example, to avoid encouraging copycats whose disruptive behavior often closes schools. But in this case Portland School Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk issued a press release about the threat Wednesday night even as the investigation continued. And Gorham School Superintendent Ted Sharp wrote a letter to parents saying it would be taken seriously with "heightened presences of law enforcement" at Gorham High School. In the end, it was only a rumor.

"We never found any threats on Facebook," said Col. Robert Williams. "There were no threats found on any social media, there was never anywhere can we find anything where any threat was made against a Maine school."

Colonel Robert Williams of the Maine State Police said schools and law enforcement are in a new era of hyper-vigilance following the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy and other mass shootings. It's not uncommon for bomb threats, shooting threats, plots and rumors about potential acts of violence to spread like wildfire after a highly publicized attack like the one on Newtown, Connecticut. Adding fuel to that fire are social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, And phone texting. Ken Trump, a consultant with National School Safety and Security Services, said that's why it's important for school administrators to be pro-active rather than reactive about communicating possible threats.

"It's a whole new dimension to what school safety professionals have had to do in training in years past," said Trump. "Rumors that used to fly in hours and days now move electronically in seconds and minutes and we actually have to have workshops now on managing crisis communications alongside the programs we're teaching on managing the actual critical incidents themselves."

Despite the increased fear about violence at schools, Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics show there were 17 homicides at schools in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That's a ten-year low. But Trump said federal statistics underestimate other types of school violence because there is no mandatory federal school crime reporting and because he said the figures are based on a hodgepodge collection of academic research surveys, not actual criminal incidents.

"Public perception often overstates the extent of school violence and reality exists somewhere in between but nobody knows exactly in real, honest numbers what those numbers are," said Trump.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education said school officials recognize the fine line they walk between being pro-active and creating more fear.

"In this particular case where we had a rumor that was spreading pretty wide pretty quickly we already had people who were nervous and so we really needed to be able to allay peoples' fears," Connerty-Marin said.

He said there may not be such a large scale public response the next time a threat to a school is made. But he said every threat will be thoroughly and aggressively investigated. That's one thing that has not changed.


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