By Karin Brulliard, Lori Aratani and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 6, 2006
CULPEPER, Va. -- The call came in to the Culpeper County communications center at 11:31 Wednesday night. The caller spoke in vague terms and named no buildings. But his threat, authorities said, was clear: Schools would be bombed.
By Thursday morning, school officials had shut the county's eight public schools, three private schools and four day-care centers, keeping more than 7,000 students out of the classroom for the entire day. Local and federal officers swept into the rural county, about 70 miles southwest of Washington, to comb each campus for explosives but turned up nothing suspicious.
Although it is not unusual for the region's school systems to receive bomb threats, Culpeper's response was. After a recent rash of small-town shootings that made it clear that any school could be targeted -- including an attack Monday on a Pennsylvania schoolhouse that left five Amish girls dead and five others wounded -- jittery school officials are acting with heightened vigilance to protect students and reassure parents.
Across the region this week, several superintendents visited schools and drafted letters advising parents to use crime tip lines and to talk to their children about school violence. School officials dispatched additional police to campuses and reviewed school security plans. In Front Royal, Va., a vehicle roaming the parking lot of a middle school was deemed suspicious by officials, prompting a 34-minute lockdown of all county schools. The all-day, countywide school closure was a first for Culpeper.
"With what's going on in our country today . . . the timing just really raises the alert," Culpeper Sheriff H. Lee Hart said. Culpeper public schools will be open Friday, schools spokeswoman Marla McKenna said Thursday night. She did not know whether private schools and day-care centers would be open.
"Naturally, every parent is concerned when something like this happens," said Brian Edwards, spokesman for the Montgomery County school system. "It's a reminder that we have to work every day to maintain a safe school environment."
The amplified attention to security comes after three recent incidents of school violence nationwide. On Monday, a gunman in Bart Township, Pa., lined up 10 girls at the blackboard of an Amish schoolhouse and shot them, killing five. On Sept. 27, a man took six teenage girls hostage at a school near Bailey, Colo., sexually assaulted them, then shot and killed one girl. Last week, a teenager in Cazenovia, Wis., fatally shot his school principal.
Bomb threats are phoned in occasionally to schools or district offices -- often during testing periods, officials said -- and police said they analyze each call to determine whether it is a credible threat, although the response varies by school system. In Alexandria, for example, if police think a bomb threat during school hours might be credible, "we quietly lock the school down, we send a lot of officers, and we do a comprehensive search" with bomb-sniffing dogs and other bomb detection devices, Sgt. Tom Magyar said.
In the District schools, unspecific bomb threats typically result in staff members making detailed walk-throughs before opening schools, said Theodore C. Tuckson, chief of school security in the District. Although he did not know the specifics of the Culpeper threat, Tuckson said he was "kind of surprised that they closed the whole system."
Although high-profile events often prompt systems to reassess their plans, school officials said, most planning occurs over time.
Working with police, area school systems have developed and honed sophisticated school violence emergency plans over several years, the byproduct of the bloody 1999 Columbine school shootings, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the 2002 sniper shootings, which paralyzed the region. State laws in Virginia and Maryland require such plans.
"What you do is you train continuously in preparation for what you hope never occurs," said John White, spokesman for the Prince George's County school system. "When these kinds of random acts of violence happen somewhere else, you hopefully can learn something from the response there in order to respond even quicker if you're put in that situation."
Some safety measures are high-tech. Fairfax and Arlington police have used digital cameras to photograph their county schools' classrooms, hallways and exteriors. Technicians link those photos to school maps, then copy them onto compact discs so officers can quickly prepare themselves before entering an unfamiliar area during a crisis, according to a publication by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Fairfax police used the technology in a mock siege staged at Centreville High School, in which officers were tasked with tracking down two armed men who were shooting inside the school, according to the chiefs association. Fairfax police declined to comment on their tactics or technology.
School officials there also use aerial photographs of schools and surrounding neighborhoods to map out ways to respond to threats. The system also has begun to add electronic locks at all elementary and middle schools. Staff members enter with key cards, and visitors must be buzzed in by a receptionist, who can see them on a video monitor.
Other techniques are simple. At several area school systems, police officers and marked cars are regularly stationed at high schools and some middle schools. Most schools require visitors to sign in at the main office and wear prominent tags while on campus. Schools also regularly drill students and teachers on what to do in emergencies. At Severna Park Middle School in Anne Arundel County, anyone entering the front door must get past a table staffed all day by parent volunteers.
Even with all the safety efforts in place, the recent spasm of violence has left some with a sense of helplessness.
"I don't know if having a table there makes us feel better or not," said Steve Anstett, president of the school's parent teacher organization. "The governor of Pennsylvania, he said something about random acts of violence, things you can't do anything about. And I understand exactly what he meant."
Kenneth S. Trump, a school security consultant in Cleveland, said he has received many e-mails recently from school principals asking how to obtain federal grants to improve their security. But he also sounded a warning: In his travels, he said, he has come across many schools that drafted emergency plans after Columbine but never updated, practiced or read them.
Seven years after Columbine, Trump said, he hears local officials say, "We never thought it could happen here."
In Culpeper, where some schools sit across the road from cornfields, parents echoed that sentiment Thursday.
At the Frost Cafe on Main Street, homemaker Kristi King sat in a booth with her visiting mother and her three school-age sons, who happily dined on pancakes and home fries for lunch at an hour they usually would have been at their desks. The decision to call off school was fine with King.
"Safety is a big issue," she said.
But she acknowledged that she was shocked Thursday morning when she tried to drop off her children at school and was turned away by officials talking about explosives.
"It's a little bit scary to think about what could have happened," King, 31, said. "It's coming further and further out of the city."
Staff writers Bill Brubaker, Michael Alison Chandler, Maria Glod and Daniel de Vise contributed to this report. Karin Brulliard filed from Culpeper. The other writers filed from Washington.