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School officials, police unsure if stricter penalties would deter threats

Bomb threats have been made at a local high school twice in the past week, and officials are not sure if imposing stricter penalties on those responsible for the acts would deter future threats.

Last week, students were evacuated from Liberty High School around 9:30 a.m., and spent about 40 minutes outside the building following a bomb threat. The school was evacuated after officials discovered the threat written on a bathroom wall, according to Carroll County Public Schools spokeswoman Carey Gaddis.

On Tuesday, Liberty High School had another bomb threat and students were out of the building for approximately 55 minutes. Similar to last week's incident, the administration was notified of some graffiti on a bathroom wall indicating a threat to the building.

A culprit has not been linked to either of the incidents, according to Coordinator of School Security Larry Faries.

The threats have been a major disruption, Faries said. Even though making the students evacuate outdoors into the cold weather for long periods of time is not ideal, he must take every threat seriously, Faries said.

The school system is doing everything possible to prevent these instances, Faries said, and he's hoping students come forward to reveal the culprits.

"It's a very frustrating situation," he said. "I would love to find out who's doing it and make an example of them."

In Allegany County, the superintendent of public schools and members of the Board of Education recently asked the Western Maryland Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly to draft legislation that would allow offenders ages 13 and older to be charged as adults. Bomb threats were reported around a dozen times last year at Allegany schools and school officials are hoping the stricter penalties will deter students.

"I'm not sure if that's the way to go or not," Faries said following Tuesday's threat. "I'd have to get a lot more information about it."

Police normally consult with the State's Attorney's Office when assessing charges, according to Capt. Clarence Lust, assistant bureau chief for the Investigative Services Bureau of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office.

Currently, violators could face up to 10 years in prison on felony charge of making a false statement about a destructive device, according to Lust. A misdemeanor charge of making a false statement to a state official could also be assessed, which carries a fine of $500 and up to six months in jail, he said.

There is a quarterly meeting of Maryland school security professionals that will take place in the next month or two, according to Faries. Since Allegany has had such a difficult time with bomb threats, Faries said he expects that subject to be a major topic of discussion.

Carroll schools generally do not receive many bomb threats, but did have about six threats within a span of three weeks at North Carroll High School several years ago.

Superintendent Steve Guthrie said there has never been discussion by the Carroll County Board of Education about supporting stricter penalties for those who make false bomb threats.

On average, there is a bomb threat made to a local school every other year. Of those who have been caught, the offender has always been students trying to disrupt the school day, Guthrie said.

"It has not been a major problem in Carroll County," Guthrie said in an interview last week.

Because bomb threats are generally made on impulse, Guthrie doesn't believe stricter penalties would discourage offenders.

"I would have to see something that says higher penalties reduce the occurrence of bomb threats before I would advocate for that," he said.

He and other school staff members are concerned about the continued incidents at Liberty High School.

"We are cooperating with the police in the investigation and we have stepped up surveillance at the school to help deter any future incidents," Guthrie said.

Based on the number of previous offenses the student has, someone who makes a bomb threat receives out of school suspension in addition to any legal consequences. Guthrie said he would hope those consequences would be enough to deter the students who are worried about the ramifications of their actions.

Bomb threats make students miss classes all together and requires teachers to rearrange their lesson plans and fit more content into a shorter period of time.

"It is a significant disruption to the educational environment," Guthrie said.

It is also difficult for students to reorient back into the educational environment after a threat such as that occurs, he said.

Rob Stryjewski, commander of the Maryland State Police Westminster barrack, said stricter penalties could possibly work to deter future occurrences, though he wasn't sold on the idea.

"It may," Stryjewski said. "But most people who commit crimes really don't ever think they're going to get caught."

The same holds true whether it's a bank robber, murderer or a high school prankster, Stryjewski said.

"Especially with kids, they just don't seem to think of the ramifications before they act," he said. "They act so impulsively."

A more effective deterrent for high school students would be for them to see a friend face the consequences of making a false bomb threat, Stryjewski said.

"I think where it has a bigger impact is when you have an example," Stryjewski said. "If they see their peer get in a lot of trouble it will deter others."

Most high school students think it is a harmless prank and don't understand the serious nature of making a false bomb threat, Stryjewski said. They don't understand the impact on emergency personnel who rush to the scene or the disruption it causes to the school, he said.

How bomb threats are handled

The scope of the threat and the size of the school are the two primary factors that determine the police resources used in events such as the Nov. 20 bomb threat.

If the incident is deemed a large threat, the sheriff's office could deploy up to 15 uniformed deputies, several investigators and K-9 units, said Lust, of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office.

The preliminary stages of a bomb threat search could cost in the $2,000 range for staff alone, Lust said.

When a bomb threat is reported, the sheriff's office normally receives a call for service from Faries, who routinely makes the decision on the school's evacuation, according to Lust. In most cases, the school is evacuated, he said.

The sheriff's office will then deploy K-9 units and request assistance from allied agencies. In some cases, they will request fire and emergency medical personnel as well, Lust said.

If suspicious packages or materials are located, the State Fire Marshal's Office is called to the scene for bomb tech support.

All bomb threats are handled by a criminal investigator, Lust said.

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