December 20, 2012

Police: Threat to Maine schools 'baseless'

They only found evidence of baseless rumors, they say, but some districts are still enhancing their officer presence Friday.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

After a couple of days of rumors, public warnings and plans for tightened security, state and local police determined Thursday that there was no message on the Internet threatening schools in southern Maine.

"We've chased baseless rumors throughout the past 24 hours and found no credible threat directed at any Maine school," Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, said in a prepared statement Thursday afternoon.

The rumors, which authorities say stemmed from talk among high school students and a letter sent by a school administrator in York, led police to increase their presence at schools and made parents consider keeping their children at home this week.

Although police found that there was no threat, officials in several school districts said Thursday that they will have more police officers than usual at their schools on Friday, as a precaution.

Some officials are attributing the rumors and their wide circulation to heightened anxiety caused by the school shootings a week ago in Newtown, Conn., and predictions based on the Mayan calendar about the world ending on Friday.

Gorham Superintendent Ted Sharp wrote in a letter to parents Thursday that the two events "presented a perfect storm for emotions and euphoria to transcend what, in less stressful circumstances, would have been guided by more reasoned judgment."

Gorham police began investigating the rumored threat Tuesday, after learning that students were saying "that a text message had surfaced threatening violence against students at the Gorham High School on Friday," Police Chief Ron Shepard said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

He said Gorham police were joined by the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, Westbrook police and Windham police, as well as school officials from other towns that were "experiencing disruptions and confusion regarding the alleged text messages."

At the same time, Shepard said, a school administrator in York sent a letter to other districts asking if they had heard rumors in their schools about something bad happening on Friday in relation to the end-of-the-world prediction. Shepard said he didn't know the name of the York official.

Debra Dunn, superintendent of York schools, said in an email Thursday evening that she is aware of "an inquiry sent to a colleague in the Windham schools as to whether their students were also reporting rumors pursuant to Friday's end of the world/Mayan calendar issue," but she wouldn't say who sent it.

"It was really one of those things that started with a question that turned into a rumor and here we are," Williams, the state police chief, said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.

He likened the incident to a game in which a message keeps changing as it's passed along. Williams said police usually hear about rumors when they start circulating, but not this time.

"It had been spread so widely throughout York and Cumberland counties, we couldn't get it stopped immediately," he said. "This one just got way out ahead of police before we got involved."

Sharp, the Gorham superintendent, sent a letter to school officials in southern Maine on Wednesday afternoon, alerting them to the rumor of a Facebook message threatening harm to schools on Friday and saying it "suggests any and all schools in York County and Cumberland County could be a target."

He later posted a letter on the Gorham School Department's website about the rumored Facebook message and the district's plan to have more police officers at schools for the rest of this week.

Several districts followed Sharp on Wednesday and Thursday with their own letters to parents about the potential threat.

Despite the outcome of the investigation, Shepard said Thursday that the plan still called for more officers at Gorham schools "just because."

Officials from school districts elsewhere, including Westbrook, Portland, Kennebunk and Cumberland, also have said they will stick with their plans to have increased police presence.

Kenneth Trump, president of Ohio-based National School Safety and Security Services, said threats made after a school safety incident like the one in Connecticut are "an unfortunate, common phenomenon."

He said he has heard of "a good number" of threats made throughout the country in the past week, and he wouldn't be surprised if hundreds had been made.

Part of the reason, he said, is that there's a "heightened awareness by people to report threats that they hear and see," and those threats are taken seriously.

He said most are unfounded and are usually the result of poor decisions by young people who want attention or think they're making off-handed comments, and they don't understand the consequences.

But sometimes, he said, an incident like the Connecticut school shootings puts someone with mental health problems "over the top."

Facebook posts from parents in southern Maine on Thursday showed that levels of fear about the rumored message varied.

Before police said there was no threat, some parents posted that they were confident that it was a hoax. Others said they would take their kids out of school for the rest of the week.

Liana Richardson, a senior at Gorham High School, said her mother isn't letting her go to school on Friday, even though police don't believe there's a threat.

"Not worth the risk, I guess," she said.

Spencer LaPierre, another Gorham High senior, said students and teachers don't seem too concerned about anything happening at the school.

"I'm pretty sure parents are more worried," he said.

Trump said parents should not be scared to send their children to school.

"The reality is, the days ahead are going to be the safest days in American schools because of the heightened attention" to security, he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

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