Those who make bogus bomb threats in schools might think it's just kid's play. But it's no joke — bomb threats cost districts thousands of dollars, create more work for already overburdened law enforcement and disrupt students' learning.
And they create tense and sometimes frightening situations for many, including parents.
"You always see afterward when someone is arrested, that someone says 'I’m just kidding, it was just a joke,'" said Amanda Klinger, director of programs for the national nonprofit Educator's School Safety Network. "We all realize as a society that that is not funny and appropriate."
In the last week, Eastern York Middle School has been evacuated four times because of four bomb threats. Two students have been suspended in relation to the incidents, but the person who wrote the first bomb threat that occurred Sept. 20 is still unknown, and the incident remains under investigation. The student who made latest bomb threat that occurred Tuesday, was caught, but Lindsey Good, secretary to the superintendent, couldn't comment on whether that student had been suspended.
Beyond the inconvenience and waste of resources caused by the fake threats, administrators and officials say, these events have the potential to create a dangerous environment in which some might be less likely to take future bomb threats seriously.
"Students shouldn't have to question their safety in a school setting," York Suburban School District Superintendent Shelly Merkle said. "It doesn't just disrupt in that given moment with the evacuation, but it disrupts in a larger sense in the safety of the students." Merkle's district hasn't had a bomb threat in more than a decade, she added.
The two students suspended in Eastern York could face harsh punishment following a district hearing.
And they could face criminal charges.
Disruptions: For students and teachers subjected to bomb threats, subsequent evacuations typically mean three days of learning interruptions, which is a costly disruption in myriad ways, Merkle said.
Eastern York Superintendent Darla Pianowski echoed the sentiment in a written statement but did not respond to the York Dispatch's request for comment.
"Bomb threats disrupt the instructional program and learning environment, and also place significant demands on school financial resources and public-safety services," she wrote. "These effects occur even when the threats prove to be false."
Nonprofit director Klinger estimates the cost is roughly $9,000 for a single bomb threat.
Legal ramifications: Lower Windsor Township Police Sgt. Ben Wind said the students who made the threats at Eastern face a number of criminal charges, including making terroristic threats and disorderly conduct.
Pennsylvania lawmakers are working to increase the penalty for making terroristic threats related to schools. Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 468, which has three primary goals: to increase the penalty for making a terroristic threat at a school to a felony; to have the case to go the Court of Common Pleas as opposed to the district magistrate; and to add Pennsylvania schools to the state's alert system.
Schreiber said an increased penalty could be a significant deterrent. Having a case go to the Court of Common Pleas would increase the bail that is posted for these threats, decreasing the likelihood that an individual could post bail and then threaten the school a second time. Adding schools to the state's alert system could notify them when someone dangerous is released and allow them to increase security, if need be.
The idea for House Bill 468 came after an incident at Phineas Davis K-8 school in York City. In February 2014, 30-year-old Eric Schelmety was arrested at the school for making terroristic threats. The next day, he paid $75 bail and immediately returned to the school, making more threats. That's when Schreiber worked with Rep. Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg, to create House Bill 468. Currently the bill is in the Judiciary Committee.
"In this day and age, we can't take any threat lightly, especially in a school," Schreiber said.
Threats in Pa.: Klinger said her organization keeps track of all threats made in or against schools in the U.S. and tries to educate school districts around the country in how they can properly deal with each type of situation, be it a bomb threat or an active shooter.
According to the organization's statistics, Pennsylvania was the state with the fourth highest number of bomb threat incidents reported in the 2015-16 school year, with 66 incidents having been reported. Massachusetts experienced the most bomb incidents with 135 reports, followed by Ohio and New Jersey. A full report of the nationwide statistics can be found on the organization's website.
Educator's School Safety Network's statistics found that most schools affected by bomb incidents were high schools, with elementary schools and middle schools trailing behind. Higher education only accounted for 5 percent of schools affected by bomb threat incidents. Most threats were found in a restroom.
According to the state Department of Education, the number of bomb threats across Pennsylvania in the 2014-15 school year — the most recent school year for which data is available — was 132.
There has been an uptick in bomb threats in school in recent years, Klinger added.
Additionally, the number of explosive devises found on school property or that have been detonated on school property also is increasing, Klinger said. There were four such instances in 2015-16, and there have been two this school year. Most of these instances didn't come with a warning threat, Klinger said.
Moving forward: Pianowski said students will receive information from the York County District Attorney's Office next week describing the risks associated with making false bomb threats. Middle school principal Keith Shoemaker also will be addressing the students to encourage them to report any behavior that compromises their safety.
"This is one area where I need your help," Pianowski said in her statement. "Please encourage your child to let a teacher or administrator know if a situation exists which could ever place them and others in danger."
Pianowski finished the letter by thanking parents and students for helping in the investigation of the bomb threats.
Klinger said that the Educator's School Safety Network's research has shown that schools that are prepared for bomb threats and other types of threats against students are less likely to have threats occur. When students or others who want to make a threat see that a school is prepared and that their action will not cause chaos, they are less likely to act, she said.
"A lot of times the planning and training becomes the preventative measure that stops this cycle," she said. "It would really be in the best interest of states and districts to provide that training."