Threats cause no-win dilemma for schools

Monday, April 21, 2008

CHICAGO -- Parents in the mostly working class Dolton School District 149 in the southern suburbs of Chicago had to scramble for child care last week after school officials shut down six schools until Tuesday.

The reason? Threats found on a bathroom wall that police said likely amounted to a prank.

"A lot of parents are irritated. I told them it was better to be safe than sorry," said Christina Boone, who took care of four extra schoolchildren at her day-care center in South Holland on Friday.

"Both parents have to work," Boone said of families in the neighborhood. "A day of day care is $25. It comes out of their pocket."

Threatening graffiti has spread through Chicago-area schools over the past two weeks, forcing police and educators into the position of discerning legitimate threats from pranks and deciding whether to cancel classes.

The warnings may have been hoaxes staged to wreak havoc and force school cancellations, security experts acknowledged. But they praised officials who took no chances.

"It's prudent on the part of institutions and schools to take notice of these incidents, especially in this week which happens to be the anniversary of some of the major calamities in U.S. history," said Glenn Rosenberg, a vice president of Pennsylvania-based AlliedBarton Security Services, which provides security for Harvard, Northwestern and hundreds of other U.S. campuses.

High-profile anniversaries

Law enforcement officials are highly aware of the mid-April anniversaries of last year's Virginia Tech massacre, the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The timing of the Chicago-area threats may have persuaded law enforcement officials to advise extreme caution to school officials.

"Security forces are very alert at this point for the potential of a copycat trying to replicate some of those tragedies," Rosenberg said in a phone interview from his home in Louisville, Ky.

The ripple of school closures aggravated parents, added days to the school calendar for some students and racked up as-yet uncalculated costs.

The cluster began with the widely publicized closure of St. Xavier University's campuses in Chicago and Orland Park. Graffiti found there had warned about a specific date, and that date was quoted in news accounts. In the next few days, similar graffiti sparked the closure of two other Chicago-area colleges, a Michigan college and an entire suburban Chicago school district.

It's impossible to draw a cause-and-effect relationship between media accounts of the first graffiti and later graffiti and school closures, said Bob Steele, media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.

But guidelines for covering school threats can be helpful to news organizations, Steele said. Guidelines can outline reasons for caution, including the possibility of hoaxes, and reasons for coverage, including the effect on safety resources and readiness of law enforcement and schools.

Specific date

St. Xavier University reopened Wednesday with officials saying that an investigation, while continuing, had turned up nothing to suggest continued danger. College officials decided not to adjust tuition costs to students, but are reviewing whether to adjust room and board charges.

It was the specific date mentioned in the St. Xavier graffiti that persuaded administrators to shut down an adjacent grade school, Evergreen Park Southwest Elementary, said district superintendent Craig Fiegel.

Since only one school in the district closed Monday, there will be no requirement to extend the school calendar to make up the day, he said.

Fiegel hoped the rash of closures has ended.

"You can't let school out every time there's a threat," said Fiegel, recalling administrators in past decades learned to respond to bomb hoaxes with quick, quiet school inspections and little publicity.

Now, parents demand notification and Internet updates, and the protocol for handling a scrawled message in a bathroom stall remains unclear, Fiegel said. "I'm hoping somebody smarter than I am will figure it out," he said.

Large universities spend millions of dollars on security, Rosenberg said, but the coming year will see even more expenditures, despite the weak economy straining the budgets of many state institutions. The college budget cycle begins in July, he said, so the response to Virginia Tech has just begun.

"The amount of review that's occurred over the last year has been truly impressive among colleges and universities," Rosenberg said. "People are reallocating money into security at a time when overhead expenditures like that would typically be reduced."

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