TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- In the last 22 months, law enforcement in the Tri-Cities region has responded to at least 23 school bomb threats. It might not sound like a lot, but there is a big cost associated with each one that you and your children are paying.
Every time there is a school bomb threat, the cavalry is called in. “You’re talking about maybe three or four other patrolmen,” said Captain Joseph Strickler with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office. “Normally, there’s two or three detectives who will respond, we have canine units that have to respond.” He said fire and EMS are normally called out as well.
Evelyn Rafalowski, director of schools for Sullivan County Schools, knows all too well about bomb threats. From January 2014 to now, her school district has seen 7 bomb threats.
“We take any threat seriously,” Rafalowski said. “We’ve gone from the phone call to the front office saying there’s a bomb in the building that’s going to go off in “X” amount of time to students who might just leave a written message of some sort on a mirror.”
Since January 2014, Kingsport Police have responded to 8 school bomb threats. Five of the cases resulted in juveniles being arrested. Records show Bristol, Tennessee police responded to three, while the Washington County Sheriff’s Office was called out to four. Bristol, Tennessee Police arrested at least one person in those cases while Washington County apprehended two juveniles. The Carter County Sheriff’s Office responded to one school bomb threat, while Johnson City and Bristol, Virginia police did not respond to any.
“I would hate to think that someone has a life threatening situation going on and an emergency vehicle can’t get to them in time because they’re on our campuses for something that should never have happened,” Rafalowski said.
Captain Strickler said fake bomb threats cost a lot in manpower and finances. “When a situation like this happens you’re looking at possibly up to 5 or 6 officers being taken out of their routine, doing what they normally do, patrolling the areas, investigating other crimes, or proactively seeking out other criminal behavior, instead of doing that we’re now having to step back and take care of a situation.”
But it’s the “what-if” that has schools evacuating the building and calling first responders when a threat is identified. “We cannot take it as a prank. We have to deal with it in a serious fashion,” Strickler said.
Rafalowski said school bomb threats take an emotional toll on everyone from parents to students. “We’ve taken other students out of the instructional climate, we’ve interrupted a teacher’s instruction…For some students it’s scary.”
Captain Strickler said if someone is caught making a fake bomb threat the offense could be punishable by 3-15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. “There have been times in the past that we have actually sought restitution for the cost of all the officers going to these scenes, EMS… volunteer firefighters.”
Rafalowski said when the culprit is a juvenile it also impacts their education, “It’s a zero tolerance offense. So they have lost their opportunity to attend school as a regular student,” for 360 days.
Sullivan County Schools has made some changes to help crack down on bomb threats, including installing more security cameras and staffing areas like bathrooms, where Rafalowski said more and more bomb threat messages are being found.
“We do staff our halls and our bathrooms continuously when needed. If that means we have a staff member changing guard every 15 minutes at the bathroom, then yes we’ve done that.” But she encourages parents to talk with their kids about the consequences of making bomb threats, to help crack down on them as well.