Illustration by Dalton Smith
A middle school boy walks into a bathroom stall and stops dead in his tracks, looking at a message scrawled on the wall with only two words: bomb threat. Frightened, the student alerts the principal, who must quickly decide his next move, knowing that he’s responsible for hundreds of young students.
For Kettering City Schools, this situation is all too real.
Bomb threats in Ohio schools aren’t new. The Dayton Daily News reported there were six such bomb threats in 2011, thirty in 2012, and twenty-nine in 2013, as recorded by the Columbus Field Office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But in recent months, Kettering and other nearby cities have been plagued by an unusual number of bomb threats in schools.
Kettering alone has seen 10 bomb threats in four schools: one at Fairmont High School, six at Van Buren Middle School, one at Kettering Middle School and two at Oakview Elementary School. Schools were evacuated in four of the incidents.
Kettering’s first threat was in May at Fairmont High School, and the most recent was Nov. 5 at Van Buren Middle School. In the most recent case, a student reportedly found a note with the words “bomb threat” in a bathroom and brought it to the office 8 minutes before dismissal time. Van Buren Principal Jeff Blakley says school officials didn’t think the threat was credible, but they are investigating it.
Superintendent: ‘This is serious stuff’
Kettering’s problems began May 15, 2014, when a threat was found at Fairmont High School, leading to an evacuation of all students and staff during 4th period. The Kettering Police and Dayton Bomb Squad were called to search the entire school.
Although no bomb was found, Fairmont’s administration took the threat very seriously.
“It would be hard to imagine reading a threat to 2,400 students and 200 staff members and not taking that seriously,” said Dan VonHandorf, principal of Fairmont High School.
Kettering Superintendent Scott Inskeep has spent many hours dealing with these threats.
“In this environment, you never know, and we’ve taken each threat very seriously,” Inskeep said. “Students are the most important thing, and I’m not just saying that. Nobody wants anything to happen to anybody, including the kid who makes a threat like that. I hope that we can continue to educate. We have to keep telling people that this is serious stuff.”
Not only were the threats a potential safety risk to students, they were also an expensive, time-consuming interruption to schools.
“Look at how much has to happen to get all the kids home from just the high school, or to get all of the parents to come pick students up, or to try to re-institute the process of instruction for the next day,” Inskeep said.
The cost of the evacuations, first responders and bomb sweeps is very high, the superintendent added, and in some instances offenders may be asked to make financial restitution, which could be tens of thousands of dollars.
All of the schools that were threatened have been swept for explosives at some point, the superintendent said. Kettering has used bomb-sniffing dogs from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Oxford City Police, the Dayton Police Department and the Dayton Airport.
Inskeep was at Oakview Elementary for one of these searches. “We met there at 3:30 in the morning on a Friday. The Wright-Patt Air Force Base dogs came, and that took about a half an hour to get it done,” he said.
Security changes at Fairmont and Van Buren
The bomb threat at Fairmont prompted the administration to make several changes at the school. Students are now required to sign out before going into the hallways during class time, and only two doors (Door 1, by the main entrance, and Door 23, near the Athletic Office) remain open throughout the day. Each of those doors is monitored by security personnel or staff members.
Inskeep said he feels such security measures can go a long way to discourage these types of threats, but he’s not confident it’s enough.
“We need some more security, I believe,” Inskeep said. “I can’t really tell you what that is yet. It may be in the area of surveillance and other things — and I’m not talking about in a bathroom — I’m just talking about hallways.”
Pointing to a nearby camera in Fairmont’s East Unit, he continued, “You’ll never have enough cameras in a building with this much square footage, but you can still put them around bathrooms or in hallways that are vulnerable.”
Van Buren Middle School, which has had six bomb threats and one evacuation since May 22, also has taken steps to discourage further threats.
Students are no longer allowed to use the restroom between classes and must use a sign-out sheet to go during class. For awhile, students also were required to have their backpacks searched before coming into school each day, but that policy is no longer in effect.
Blakley said he sees a common theme among the students who have so far been identified as making the threats.
“Each of these students has been somewhat troubled and has really, really disliked school,” Blakley said. “It’s not just your average ‘didn’t want to come to school.’ They have really shown a strong aversion to school for some reason.”
The district is making it a top priority to prevent these threats from happening. Each threat has robbed Kettering City Schools of valuable time, cost money, and raised complex questions regarding school safety and student punishment.
When a threat is found, the police must be notified and, in some of the more serious cases, all students and staff are evacuated from the building and the bomb squad must search the school. This not only impacts students and staff, but parents as well.
Toni Peterson, parent of Fairmont and Van Buren students, said she worries about her children’s safety at school. “As a parent, I will always worry about my kids,” Peterson said. “I just worry our schools are not really prepared for all of this if it really were to happen.”
Inskeep, however, stresses the district’s efforts to keep students — as well as faculty and staff — safe.
“The ultimate responsibility that each of us have every day is for student safety and for the staff’s safety,” Inskeep said. “We are trying and working hard at it every day. When a person is intent on doing harm or causing disruption, we can’t predict what that kid is going to do. All we can do is be prepared to hopefully respond in a consistent, fair manner and do it in a way that keeps every kid safe.”
The superintendent said he decides whether or not to evacuate, working closely with the Kettering Police Department.
“Ultimately, it’s a collaboration between myself and the police department,” Inskeep said. “If the police department were to say to me, ‘You guys need to evacuate,’ then we’re going to evacuate. They’re the experts, not me.”
Inskeep said he’s confident that none of the threats thus far has been credible, citing students’ desire to get out of school, but that doesn’t make these types of decisions any easier.
Finding the students who made the threats can be difficult. “What helps us a lot is word of mouth, when other kids say something,” Inskeep said. “When they know and go to an adult and say, ‘Hey, I know Johnny did it. I saw him make that threat,’ that helps us alleviate our major concerns right away.”
The superintendent said being able to confront a suspect is helpful. “Many times the child has admitted, because we’ve caught him, that ‘there is no bomb, there is no credible threat.’ But you just don’t know; each threat has to be taken individually.”
Determining appropriate punishments
Along with taking the threats seriously, authorities have been taking measures to make sure the punishment fits the crime, regardless of age.
Threats scribbled in crayon on bathroom walls at Oakview Elementary School led to evacuations on both Sept. 4 and Sept. 5, resulting in the arrest of an 8-year-old student. The student misspelled “bomb threat,” Inskeep said.
Carla Sacher, a Kettering Police officer assigned to Van Buren and Fairmont, says the 8-year-old at Oakview is not being formally charged. “The case will be sent to the 10 and under juvenile court program,” she said, and the student will receive counseling and education.
While that elementary student does not face criminal prosecution, several middle-schoolers face felony charges for false threats, Officer Sacher said.
Sacher said authorities believe three middle school students account for at least four of the threats at Van Buren Middle School. One student made two in the same day, she said, and two have not been solved, although suspects have been identified.
Sacher said the middle school students who were charged with inducing panic or making a false alarm must face hearings in juvenile court. “They are currently with their families and not attending Kettering Schools,” Sacher said.
The prosecutor’s offices, both in Dayton and in Kettering, are handling the criminal charges. “They want to try to do what they can to try to help these kids learn to not do it again,” Inskeep said. “Kids make mistakes, but that’s a serious mistake and we haven’t taken it lightly on any one of them.”
The superintendent said each of the students was suspended and attended an expulsion hearing. Regardless of the outcome of those hearings, Inskeep said it will be possible for the students to eventually return to Kettering schools.
“I think each kid is different, and you have to decide how you’re going to manage that,” Inskeep said. “But we don’t want to discriminate against anybody. There could be a kid who committed a felony, and he or she is eventually allowed to come back to school.”
Inskeep admits that dealing with such situations is difficult. “It’s a difficult balance, because you have to not only protect the organization, which is the district, but also that kid, as well as students. It’s tough,” Inskeep said. “Hopefully, we have handled it in the right way, and it will work out best for all parties.”
Unintended consequences of a felony label
The stern response to the threats has stirred it own controversy.
Rebecca Hall, magistrate for Miami County Probate Juvenile Court, says a felony can be very serious for a minor. Hall has dealt with the bomb threat issue first hand, following a string of threats in Tipp City in 2013.
“The majority of these students were charged with inducing panic,” Hall said. “In some cases, they were found not guilty because school staff and students recognized the threats as innocuous, albeit rude and idiotic, speech that some kids are prone to, and thus no ‘panic’ ensued.”
Hall also dealt with a case last year where a middle school student was charged with “making a terroristic threat.”
“I found the child not guilty but most likely would have convicted him of a more appropriate charge, such as inducing panic, menacing or disorderly conduct,” Hall said.
According to Hall, dealing with minors who commit these types of threats is a very complicated process.
“Labeling a child a ‘felon’ can have serious psychological effects on the youth and may lead to further criminal behavior,” she said. “A felony label might also keep a youth from pursuing positive life goals in the future, such as entering the military.”
Many people feel that the children who write these threats need extra help instead of being expelled.
“I would encourage educators to ensure that students who make threats get needed counseling and continued education,” Hall said. “While it is tempting to believe that expelling threatening students solves the problem by removing them from the building, in reality this action alienates these students and makes them a greater threat to society as a whole.”
Officer Sacher agrees, emphasizing that children do not always think before they act.
“I believe students are impulsive and selfish in their actions, and some do not understand the consequences or the expense of making a threat,” the Kettering Police officer said.
Sacher said she doubts the Kettering students were aware of the severity of their actions.
“I believe they were surprised when they found out it is a felony and that they were facing serious charges,” she said. “Until you’re the age of 22, cognitive development for analysis of choices is not fully developed. The students do not equate their actions with breaking the law but as a means to end school.”
While Sacher stresses that the students are children, and thus not fully capable of making such life-changing decisions, she does think students should face consequences for their actions.
“I believe the student must be held accountable for the choice and expense of making the threat,” Sacher said. “The safety and rights of all students should be respected. Every student has the right to feel safe at school without the distraction of a false threat.”
Do evacuations encourage copycats?
Magistrate Hall said she thinks, however, that the safety of students in Kettering was never really in question.
“While the need to prevent violence in schools is of utmost importance, I would advise school administrators to use common sense to first evaluate whether a credible threat exists, and then to fashion a response that meets but does not exceed the level of that threat,” Hall said. “Overreaction, which I would label the evacuation of a school based on a threat written on a bathroom stall, will most likely encourage copycat threats and condition staff and students to not take evacuations seriously.”
Kettering’s superintendent said he understands the magistrate’s concern about the unintended consequences of evacuating schools.
“That is why I think it is very important to remember that the first few threats here were so new to me, I didn’t know what the procedure was,” said Inskeep, who became Kettering superintendent on Sept. 1, 2014.
“Since then, we have chosen to take it on a case by case basis,” Inskeep said. “I think from this point forward, after working with first responders and our Police and Fire Department here in Kettering, we have developed strategies that will give us the ability to make good solid decisions every time.”
The superintendent explained that it’s been a learning process for all involved.
“I don’t think we’re perfect,” Inskeep said. “But I do feel confident that safety has always been the first priority.”