BRUNSWICK — All it took was a late-night phone call to turn this town upside down for a day.
Police received the threat just after midnight. Less than an hour later, Officer Mark Lafountain and two canine teams were inching through the dimly lit high school looking for a bomb.
No bomb was found. But the threat alone shut down the school system for the entire day, forcing parents to scramble for day care and tacking an extra day of school onto the summer holiday.
Across the country, bomb threats are a growing problem in schools. And Maine is no different: There have been at least six bomb scares at Maine schools over the past month.
“It’s a huge disruption in the normal course of business,” said Brunswick Police Chief Jerry Hinton. “This just isn’t kids out of school for a day. You can’t put a dollar figure on it.”
There are no precise figures on bomb threats at schools either across the country or in Maine because educators are not required to report such incidents to their state governments, said Michael Higgins, special programs coordinator for the Maine Department of Education.
But the numbers seem to be growing.
In addition to Brunswick, bomb threats have closed down schools in Kennebunk, Gorham, Portland, Topsham and Waldoboro over the past month.
In Brunswick, Lafountain’s adrenaline was rushing and he could hear his heart pounding as the bomb-sniffing dogs checked out the entire school, including lockers, ceiling tiles and the noisy boiler room.
He could not turn on the lights, and he was isolated because he could not use radio communications. Both precautions were taken for fear that electricity or radio waves could set off an explosive device.
Opening classroom doors was terrifying.
“You always wonder if it’s booby trapped,” he said.
In the past, bomb threats didn’t necessarily result in schools being closed for the day. But given the current climate of bombings and school shootings, threats must be taken seriously, said Ronald Stephens at the National School Safety Center near Los Angeles.
“In light of the significant levels of violence that our public schools have experienced for the past year and a half, it has dramatically changed the way threats are being handled,” Stephens said.
All schools should have a crisis management plan, involving law enforcement, to handle explosives or bomb threats, Stephens said.
“Threats can no longer be taken lightly. Every threat should be taken promptly and properly handled or at least taken seriously,” he said.
Richard Verdugo, coordinator of the National Education Association’s Safe Schools Program, said while a bombing is unlikely, students act out aggressions at school because they spend so much time there.
“They have problems with their family and the community and school becomes a context where they act out these problems,” he said.
In Horseshoe Bend, Ark., a 15-year-year-old boy was expelled and faces criminal charges after police say they found bomb parts in his home.
Police searched his house after they received a tip that the boy planned to “blow up” an aide who worked at the Izard County Consolidated High School in Brockwell. The threat was heard by several students.
Most often, however, there is no bomb to go with the threats. But the threats alone are a time-consuming and costly nuisance.
In southern New Jersey, school districts have been plagued with a rash of threats that have disrupted and canceled classes. Several students have been arrested, but the threats have continued.
And in West New York, N.J., a 16-year-old was arrested for making six bomb threats. He said he did it because he didn’t like one of his teachers.
Hinton said he would have laughed 10 years ago if someone told him he would be worried about bombs, along with guns and knives, in schools.
Greg Bartlett, assistant superintendent of the Brunswick School District, suggested that the incidents should come as no surprise. Schools are a reflection of society in general, he said.
“Any of these very tragic situations can happen anywhere at any time,” Bartlett said, “and we have to anticipate and plan for any disruptive eventuality.”