By Lori Aratani and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 12, 2006
A 12-year-old boy's false claim yesterday that an armed man approached him at a bus stop and threatened violence at a school prompted officials to lock the doors and heighten security at 13 campuses in northwestern Montgomery County.
The boy, a seventh-grader at Kingsview Middle School in Germantown, told his story to a driver as he boarded his bus in the morning, then recanted it during an after-school interview with detectives.
Before he did, the tale was enough to throw Maryland's largest school system into confusion and parents into a state of uncertainty. Acting with "an abundance of caution," police and school system officials put the schools under a day-long Code Blue alert, which meant doors were monitored and students continued classes under tighter security than usual.
Police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said detectives are conferring with prosecutors to determine whether to file charges against the boy. She said it was unclear what his motive may have been.
The school system's actions, coming after a series of school shootings and violent threats across the United States, demonstrate the current concern about student safety. Baur said police had initially recommended that three campuses be put under Code Blue alert, but school officials decided to add 10 schools.
Montgomery's response echoes that of officials in Virginia's Culpeper County, which shut down all public and private schools last week after receiving a bomb threat by phone. A 25-year-old man was arrested yesterday in connection with the case.
In Arlington County, security was tightened yesterday at Wakefield High School and neighboring Claremont Immersion Elementary School after a teenager apparently fired a paintball gun while walking to school, an official said. And in Wilmington, Del., three high school students were charged with terroristic threatening and conspiracy for making bomb threats at their school.
On Tuesday, President Bush hosted a six-hour Conference on School Safety in Chevy Chase, at which officials talked about strategies for making campuses more secure.
Yesterday's Code Blue alert in Montgomery was one of several incidents that rattled the nerves of the 139,000-student school system.
Just before 8 a.m., more than 2,200 students at Sherwood High School were evacuated after administrators received a bomb threat. Bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in to sweep the Sandy Spring campus. The threat turned out to be false, and a 15-year-old student from Sherwood was arrested in connection with the incident.
Then, in the early afternoon, two elementary schools in Gaithersburg -- Brown Station and Diamond -- briefly tightened security after Gaithersburg police notified them that a burglary suspect whose description matched that of the man who allegedly made the bus stop threat was believed to be in the area. The Code Blue at those schools, a separate action, was lifted about 90 minutes later.
Montgomery police said that elementary school students were kept inside buildings for recess and that outdoor activities at other campuses were canceled. School system officials also canceled after-school activities at Kingsview Middle.
Under the school district's rules, Code Blue is the less restrictive of two types of alerts issued when there is a potential threat to school security. Under a Code Red alert, students and teachers must remain in their classrooms or in a secured area.
For students, the most frustrating part of the day was being stuck inside.
Akshan Singh, 8, a third-grader at Germantown Elementary, said students were calm throughout the day, but many found the alert frustrating because they couldn't go outside for recess and were allowed to leave the classroom only with special permission.
Some parents, however, found the alert frustrating for other reasons.
Lonnie Williams, 45, an electronic engineer, said he didn't know about the Code Blue until a reporter asked him about it as he waited to pick up his daughter at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown. Williams said he did not receive an e-mail notification on his hand-held computer device, as he would for weather-related changes in the school schedule.
"That's annoying," Williams said. "Since the sniper incident, there's been that edge, wanting to know what's going on when something like this is happening."
But Suzanne Maxey, principal at Seneca Valley, showed The Washington Post a copy of an e-mail she sent at 10:32 a.m. to members of the school's "Eagles Bulletin" e-mail list.
"The overall security of the building has been increased," Maxey wrote, in part. "The students are safe and regular instruction has continued." She said she knew of only one parent who took a child out of school early.
At Seneca Valley, Code Blue meant no casual bathroom breaks and no lunch trips to McDonald's or Wendy's. The front doors were locked, and teachers and security assistants guarded the other doors between classes. The first-period physical education students were called in from the tennis courts. Many teachers spent their free periods, meant as time to plan their lessons, walking the halls.
"A lot of people were calm," said Ashley Ramos, 14, a ninth-grader. "Some people were like, "Oh my God,' but everything was pretty normal besides being in the classroom with the doors closed."
She said she was never scared. "When they [school officials] said there was security everywhere and not to panic, we felt a lot more safe," she said.
With none of the school's 1,454 students allowed to leave campus for lunch, lines grew in the cafeteria. Many ate lunch in classrooms or the auditorium lobby. School officials unlocked the gym to ease crowds in the cafeteria and let students burn off energy playing basketball.
About 80 seniors carried on with a trip to the Germantown Soccerplex for a college expo.
"Usually we just say, 'Get on the bus,' " Maxey said. "Today, 15 adults were out there to make sure they were okay."
Although officials say they have made strides in making schools safer, they acknowledge -- as in the case of the Montgomery incident -- that it's sometimes difficult to differentiate the real threats from the false ones. But they hope stiffer penalties for such actions will be a deterrent.
Montgomery officials said that despite the vague nature of the threat, they did not want to take any chances. Parents, too, said it is difficult to know how concerned they should be.
Parent Carol Ferrara, 46, said yesterday's Code Blue did not worry her as much as it might have a couple of years ago. Seneca Valley had a bomb hoax last school year, she said, and she hears news reports about threats that turn out to be nothing.
"It's one of those things where you think it's not going to turn into anything, thank God," Ferrara said as she waited in her minivan to pick up her son, a junior at Seneca Valley. "It's so common. But with the school shootings, I sort of hold my breath and wonder when is it going to happen here?"
Staff writers Ernesto Londoño and Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.