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Bombs Away

Christopher Henderson

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

At 11:45 on the morning of November 17, 1998, the receptionist at Maple Grove Senior High School, Lori Wachter, picked up the phone and heard a male voice say, "Hi, I'm Mr. Nice Guy. A bomb will go off in the northwest section of the building in 30 minutes. And I mean it!" A short time later, as an on-site police officer interviewed Wachter, two more messages from the same caller came in--the first checking to make sure he was being taken seriously, the second warning school staff, "You have 24 minutes left."

Administrators evacuated the building, and police and custodians used dogs to search the school. They found no bombs. At 11:45 a.m. the following day, Wachter fielded a call and listened as the same male voice lodged the same threat. This time administrators did not clear the school; once again, no bombs turned up.

As it turned out, the bomb threat in Maple Grove was not all that exceptional. In the 1998-99 school year, every one of the seven high schools in the Osseo school district, which includes Maple Grove, got at least one phone threat to blow up the school. If several threats occurred on the same day, the school was evacuated; if the threat seemed particularly implausible, police swept the building but classes were not disrupted. In each instance, no bombs were ever located, and usually the menacing voice on the phone disappeared into oblivion. With most of the recent bomb threats coming into local schools, "it's extremely difficult to track down who did it," says Chris Richardson, the district superintendent in Osseo. "If we catch someone, it's because other students come forward."

A month after the bomb scares disrupted classes in Maple Grove, 15-year-old student Trereias Harris was arrested by local police and charged with making a terroristic threat--a felony offense. Harris was transferred to another school, and he has been fighting the charges in court ever since. Many details of his case are confidential because of his age, but it is clear that Harris had already had some run-ins with the law and had a juvenile record, a fact that will add to the severity of his punishment should he be found guilty on the current charges. The judge adjudicating his case is expected to rule on September 15. Should the verdict run against him, Harris's sentence could run anywhere from court-ordered counseling and several months of community service to an 18-month stint at the Hennepin County Home School, a juvenile detention center.

Making a bomb threat has been a felony offense in Minnesota since 1971. In the wake of several armed rampages at schools around the nation--from Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Springfield, Oregon, and, this spring, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado--local school administrators and county prosecutors have increasingly opted to press felony charges in regard to "copycat" threats rather than, say, simply kick students out of school. Prank phone calls, offhand remarks, and other suspicious student behavior that once might have been considered mere adolescent larks have turned into serious criminal acts. "Five years ago they might have been suspended. We'd have brought their parents in to talk with them, maybe the bomb squad, and that would be it," says Paul Paulson, the St. Paul Public Schools' director of safety and security. Now the district's policy is to expel the student and press charges every time law enforcement can finger a culprit.

The number of threats in metro-area school districts is difficult to pinpoint (schools don't always report them to central offices, and districts have only recently begun to keep such statistics), but Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner says they're on the rise: "This spring we saw an increase in reports from schools of things like terroristic threats and bomb threats. What we're not sure of is how much of the increase is because there are more incidents, and how much is due to schools reporting things they wouldn't have reported before." Superintendent Richardson estimates that there were more than a half-dozen terroristic threats last year in his district alone. The same is true of public schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

And willingness on the part of school personnel and law enforcement to press charges means that the number of arrests is going up. In Osseo and Minneapolis, two students besides Harris are currently facing felony charges. In St. Paul, after a bomb threat forced an evacuation during this past school year, a teacher overheard a handful of students discussing the note they'd written in connection with the scare. All of those students have been charged with felonies.

Since last November, 96 juveniles have been prosecuted for making terroristic threats in Hennepin County (which includes the Minneapolis and Osseo districts); at least 10 of these involved bomb scares in schools. Ramsey County does not yet have data compiled for 1999 but last year charged 18 juveniles with making terroristic threats. The larger number in Hennepin, say those keeping track, probably reflects the county's larger population and a more aggressive prosecution policy, as well as an increase in such activity since the beginning of the year.

When it comes to national statistics that might put the local scene in context, University of Minnesota law professor and juvenile justice specialist Barry Feld says, "We don't have a lot of data, because the public-policy and school-administrator people are having pretty recent reactions to all this." While fear about weapons in schools led to "zero-tolerance" policies in the 1980s, Feld adds, "zero-tolerance for nonphysical threats is getting into a new area."

Still, local school officials and justice officials aren't waiting for probability statistics to support their fears. "Which administrator, police, or judge wants to say they're the cause of another Columbine?" asks Raymond Bell, who teaches education and social relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. "People are very twitchy, partly because of a psychological response [to shootings] and partly because schools are like a sanctuary to us. In the short run, this is going to remain a problem, because everyone's going to be overreacting. And it's hard not to react, because you don't want it to happen here."

Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar reacted in mid-August with plans to assign a prosecutor to each high school in the county. Her office, like that of many school administrators, is walking a thin line between get-tough crackdowns and the desire to avoid alarming parents. "We're not looking for business," Pete Cahill, head of the county attorney's juvenile prosecution division, says about the move to bring felony charges against students. Prosecutors appointed to schools "will be an information resource," he adds. "We're expecting [school administrators] to call on them for advice on whether to charge something as a crime. Also, we're going to let kids know that if the crime was in school, you'll be in court quickly."

As for other security measures, Minneapolis public schools have instituted a hotline for students wanting to anonymously report their suspicions about classmates, and ID badges middle and high schoolers will be required to wear around their necks.

Minneapolis schools spokeswoman Jackie Turner, seconding the words of officials in the St. Paul and Osseo districts, emphasizes that the district is reacting to threats and fears of school violence, rather than real incidents. No students have actually gone so far as to set off bombs in any of the three districts' school buildings. Knock on wood, says Osseo's Richardson, noting that tougher policies on tracking down young perpetrators and charging them with felonies might be working as a deterrent. Even so, he adds, all the precautions may, with one incendiary incident, come to naught: "If someone wanted to blow something up, they'd just go blow it up. Look at Oklahoma City--no one called in any threats there."

Correction published 10/6/1999:
Owing to a reporting error, this story incorrectly stated that Trereias Harris was expelled from Maple Grove Senior High School after being criminally charged with making a terroristic threat. According to Harris's attorney, the boy was not expelled but was transferred to another school in the district. (Harris was later found guilty of the charge.) The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.


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