Archive for Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bomb threats bring questions

April 26, 2007

Lessons were learned last Thursday when a "generic" bomb threat was phoned into 911 dispatch in Lawrence and virtually locked down schools in the entire county.

The bomb threats only said school and City Hall and were eventually traced to a 46-year-old Lawrence man, Michael E. Parker, who was arrested. The first call was made around 6 a.m. last Thursday. Baldwin City schools weren't notified until around 8 a.m. and it was a radio station in Lawrence that made that call.

"We were not notified by law enforcement," said Supt. Paul Dorathy. "The first time I actually knew something was going on was around 8 a.m."

The Baldwin City Police Department was notified by dispatch via the radio. No calls were made.

"A little after 7 a.m. on Thursday morning, my officers are telling me that dispatch came out over the radio with a generalized statement that a call had been made to the effect about a generalized threat about a school and City Hall," said Police Chief Mike McKenna, who was out of town at a meeting. "Cpl. Kristen Dymacek who was the shift supervisor called (City Administrator) Jeff Dingman. School Resource Officer Kim Judy was going to a meeting at the high school at 7:30 a.m. and told them about it. (Baldwin High School Principal) Shaun Moseman was there. She told him to take precautions. After the meeting, someone notified Dorathy."

At about the same time, another call was made to BHS.

"A parent called Moseman at the high school wondering if they were going to have the school searched," said McKenna. "Kim and Kristen did a walk through of the high school and other schools. All of the schools were notified."

Two schools, Baldwin Elementary School Primary Center and Vinland Elementary School went into lockdown, but not full lockdown. The other schools did not. Parents of 54 students took their children out of school that day, about 3.5 percent of the district's population, Dorathy said.

The biggest lesson learned, according to Dorathy, was a simple one.

"We're going to talk about that with the building principals," Dorathy said of the response. "Communication could have been better. I think our procedures were pretty good about everything but communication.

"The key thing is letting people know," he said. "We'll sit down and say 'what could we have done better.'"

The policy

On Thursday afternoon, the Signal asked the school district for its procedure in such events. The procedure was explained as:

1. Contact news media

2. Start calling each household

3. Use e-mail when possible

The school district does not have an automated phone system, but is looking into a service that provides it.

The school district did not notify the Signal Thursday of the bomb threats. The Lawrence Journal-World called the Signal to check what was going on here. That's when Dymacek and Judy were found checking Baldwin Elementary School Primary Center. The Signal had a story on-line at www.baldwincity.com by 9:30 a.m. and updated it throughout the day.

Dorathy said he knows the Signal's Web site is the most immediate way to inform people whether they are in Baldwin City or have already left. He said notification is done as soon as possible.

"As soon as we think we know what we've got going," said Dorathy. "I think that's where we got into trouble with communication. That's the one piece of this we're working on is better communication. Our best source right now is through the media. We need another way to contact them."

One of the problems is what phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses to use for notification. If calls are made to homes and people are at work, they're missed. The same goes the other way around.

"There's a company based in St. Louis that does that," he said. "You put in all the numbers you want to use. The system will automatically call out to those numbers. The challenge with that is it's only as good as the numbers in the system. Home numbers or emergency numbers? We've got some questions on whether several numbers can be put in the system.

"Find the best way you can to contact them," said Dorathy. "Will some be missed? Sure."

Another part of the policy is that parents are welcome to take their children out of school if they are concerned.

"That's always our policy on something like this, even bad weather days," he said. "If they don't feel comfortable with their children in school, we encourage them to come get them."


Parents not pleased

Two parents spoke to the Baldwin School Board at Monday's meeting regarding last Thursday's bomb threats. They were unhappy with how the situation was handled.

"I know on Thursday that all of Douglas County had bomb threats in their schools," said Anna Wise. "I would never sustain on notifying on this issue, never. I do not see it fit that you guys take my daughter's life into your hands. I know for a fact that the secretary at the high school was allowed to leave and take her children out of school. We should have had the same right. I shouldn't have to wait until 9:30 (a.m.) when a bus driver told me about it to know something was going on.

"I know most of Douglas County knew at 5:30 a.m. when the first phone call came in to the Douglas County Sheriff's Department," Wise said. "I understand that there were not bombs in our schools, but if the phone call came in at 5:30, why weren't the schools closed until they were swept? Why were the kids left in the school and endanger thousands of kids?"

Wise said that she had lots of friends that have children in the schools. She also said her daughters will have instructions on what to do from now on.

"My daughters go to this school district," she said. "Something different needs to be done. You guys need to take it under advisement that when this stuff goes on, you either close the school or give the parents the option to come get their kids.

"I have already told my daughter that I don't care, they can kick her out of school or they can do whatever," said Wise. "She is to carry her cell phone with her and have it turned on. If anything like this ever happens again, she is to call me."

Greg Randel, a patron who also has three children in the district, was equally displeased.

"I would like to know what the policy is for the Baldwin School District for this," said Randel. "Things need to be changed. When you get a phone call that schools in Douglas County are going to be blown up that day, you need to evacuate the children and your staff immediately. There is no excuse for this. What gives you the right to make the decision?

"I know you guys were notified before 8 o'clock, so why did you allow children to come in these buildings? You need to think on that and come up with a better plan," he said. "I know Eudora has an automated system that calls people. I know several people who live in Eudora and they were notified by 8:10 by the automated system. Why don't we have one of those? I want some answers, too."


City procedures, too

With the generic threat also mentioning City Hall, Administrator Jeff Dingman inspected it himself and found nothing. The City Hall alarms had been on overnight Wednesday without any trips.

But, Chief McKenna will also be reviewing procedures, including those of notifying the school district. But, with the way last Thursday's situation played out, there wasn't much else that could be done.

"Right," said McKenna. "When it's nonspecific, what can you do? Granted, kids were involved. You keep your eyes open for anything unusual, a package. You stay off your radio or telephone so you don't set anything off."

The bomb threat scare followed the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech University where 33 people died. That had everyone on edge.

"I believe in the theory that any time you have an incident like Virginia Tech, the likelihood of something else happening goes up," he said. "It's always good to review your procedures. The better we can be prepared is the better we can serve the people if this terrible shadow crosses our threshold.

"We can't prevent them, but we can minimize the damage," said McKenna.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.