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Parental, student concerns about 'end of the world' prompted Harford schools to boost security Friday

Although Harford County Public Schools faced no specific threats Friday, the school system stepped up security in response to students merely talking about rumors of the "end of the world" and posting about it on social media, a school spokesperson said.

In deciding to notify parents late Thursday about security plans and to assure them schools would be safe Friday, Harford joined a number of school system around the country that boosted security or even closed.

"We were getting calls all week," Teri Kranefeld, the Harford school system's manager of communications, said Friday morning. "Given the [school shooting in Newtown, Conn., a week ago Friday] and the end of the world phenomenon, we were getting significant phone calls from parents...they wanted to know what we were doing. They had heard the rumors."

"There was a lot of chatter on Facebook and Twitter in regard to end of the Mayan calendar," Kranefeld said, explaining that although the chatter was "non-specific," it was "our students speaking."

There was one arrest involving a local school Friday. A student at North Harford Middle School was taken into custody Friday morning for bringing a knife to school, Harford County Sheriff's Office spokesman Eddie Hopkins said Friday afternoon.

The principal at the Pylesville school told a deputy she had received reports from two students about another student who had a "survival-type," 6-inch knife in a leather sheath.

The boy, an 8th-grade student, was released to the custody of his father after being charged as a juvenile with possessing a deadly weapon on school property, Hopkins said.

Hopkins said he did not know of any other usual incidents reported at county schools Friday.

Kranefeld said she would not have any daily attendance figures until later Friday afternoon. Friday was the last day before the extended holiday break, and elementary schools students were previously scheduled to dismiss early.

"It's the day before a holiday, so our attendance is a little bit lower anyway," she said.

Kranefeld said local law enforcement was requested to focus more on schools than usual Friday but was not asked to have additional patrol cars sitting at individual schools, as happened on Oct. 24, after the school system became concerned about a bomb threat involving several high schools.

"We did not mean there was a guard at every school," she said of the plan for Friday.

Police vehicles were observed Friday at Havre de Grace High School, Aberdeen High and Middle schools and at C. Milton Wright and Harford Technical high schools in Bel Air, but Hopkins of the Sheriff's Office said the vehicles are assigned to the school resource officers posted daily at each high and middle school.

"There was not a request from the School System for increased patrols to specifically mean that law enforcement would have a presence at each school," Hopkins explained, saying it was the expectation of school officials that police would patrol through as often as possible, not necessarily sit at each school.

"As you know, we have [school resource officers] that serve at the high and middle schools in the county and would already have a consistent presence in those schools," he said. "Given the latest events in Connecticut, it also would have been a normal course of daily business for deputies to conduct additional patrols of schools and communities, to maybe have a higher visibility than normal, as part of their duties."

Kranefeld noted how schools throughout the country were either boosting security or closing for the day in response to the doomsday prophecy and concerns in the wake of the Connecticut massacre. Some had actually seen threats on social media, she said. Michigan drew attention for closing schools, specifically citing the Mayan calendar rumors.

The Harford school system sent a message at 4:30 p.m. Thursday via robocalls and a posting on the home page of its website telling parents and students about increased patrols around schools in response to concerns about Friday.

"As you may be aware, rumors have begun to surface via media and social media regarding tomorrow, Friday, December 21st," the website message read. "All rumors related to Harford County Public Schools are immediately investigated for credibility by our Safety and Security Office and local law enforcement agencies. 

"At this time, none of the rumors have been deemed credible; however, we will remain vigilant in investigating all rumors. Please know that Harford County Public Schools is working with law enforcement agencies, as a precaution, to provide an increased police presence around schools throughout the day tomorrow [Friday]." 

"While you may physically see some of the police presence, other security measures will not be visible by design," the website posting continued. "Middle and high schools will operate on a normal schedule with an early dismissal for elementary schools only." The early elementary dismissal on the last day before the Christmas holiday break had been planned.

The posting concluded: "Please assist us in managing any rumors by talking with your child about responsible social media use, if appropriate, as rumors originate in that forum and can cause undue stress on the school community. Thank you in advance for your cooperation, together we can help keep our schools a safe and comfortable learning environment for our children."

In talking Thursday about the end of the world prophecy, Hopkins said police in the county were being watchful.

"We certainly will have increased vigilance like everyone else," he said.

Hopkins, however, did say he was worried the online discussions about the end of the world were creating "unnecessary angst" in some people who in turn could tie up police with "unnecessary investigations," or even make it hard to distinguish what could be a real concern.

"Naturally, everyone enjoys some good humor. But I am very concerned people won't pay attention to how they word their messages and those messages can be easily misinterpreted by others. Especially people who join the conversation deep into the thread," Hopkins said via e-mail. "Hopefully people will be smart about texting, tweeting and [Facebook]."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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