Portland officials review response to school threats

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PORTLAND — School Department and city officials are reviewing how they respond to threats after two Portland schools were locked down on three occasions last week.

Lyman Moore Middle School was first locked down on Jan. 4, then twice last week on Jan. 25 and 26. The following day, Portland High School was locked down.

In all cases, notes threatening violence and the existence of a weapon were discovered in restrooms, according to officials

Superintendent of Schools James Morse Sr., Police Chief James Craig and City Manager Joe Gray met last week for about an hour to review the policy, according to City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

Clegg said the lock-downs were the first time a city and school joint emergency response policy, which was drafted over a three-year period before its adoption last summer, has been used.

“A lock-down is a significant step for a school to take,” she said. “We were all aware how disruptive these instances were.”

Although city and school officials generally agree the response plan is the correct one, Clegg said officials may make changes in how every threat is assessed, allowing officials to differentiate hoaxes from more serious threats. 

“Everyone agrees these are serious circumstances,” Clegg said. “(Police) take each of these threats very seriously.”

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said he expects to receive an update from Morse on Wednesday, Feb. 3.

But before any policy changes are suggested, Lyman Moore Middle School has already made changes in its daily operations to reduce the chances of future disruptions.

Principal Lee Crocker said only two of six student restrooms are now available during the day. Teachers take turns monitoring those restrooms, he said, making sure that each student signs in prior to entering and signs out as they leave.

“The teachers usually go in there every 10 to 15 minutes to check the bathroom,” Crocker said.

Crocker said the school has standardized and now strictly enforces its hall pass policy, too, in addition to mandating better sign-out procedures when students leave their rooms during classes.

Teachers may also be asked to draft emergency lesson plans, Crocker said, so they can continue teaching while the school is searched during a lock-down.

Crocker said it is not likely students will have to make up class time lost because of the three recent episodes.

He complimented school staff, many of whom have given up free periods to monitor the restrooms, for their commitment to the new initiatives.

“The staff has been incredibly willing to help,” he said. “They’re actually taking it our of their own time. Right now, it’s voluntary.”

Additionally, Crocker said a school assembly was held Thursday, Jan. 28, where police Officer Michael Sauschuck talked to the students about criminal penalties for leaving threatening notes.

Sauschuck also told students that false alarms cost the city money and may inhibit the department’s ability to respond to future emergencies, Crocker said. 

Police Capt. Ted Ross last week said a seventh-grader has admitted to leaving the Jan. 26 note at Lyman Moore. He said the boy has been suspended and is being charged with misdemeanor terrorizing.

Portland High School Principal Michael Johnson said he is appealing to students to come forward with any information about who might have placed a threatening note in a bathroom on Wednesday, Jan. 27.

Johnson defended the decision to lock down the school, because the note was rather explicit. He would not elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation.

When it comes to changing the emergency response policy, Eglinton said the School Department must walk a fine line between not investing significant resources into hoaxes, while also treating each threat seriously.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net