By Stephen J. Kotz
No, it was not a prank called in by a bored high school student who wanted to get out of class early on Monday to enjoy one of the few sunny days we have seen this spring. It was an actual bomb scare that forced the Sag Harbor School District to evacuate approximately 1,000 students from their classrooms.
The threat was phoned into the Pierson Middle/High School’s main office at 10:46 a.m. Similar threats, made by a robo-call, were received by random school districts across the country, according to Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire.
While students milled about on Pierson Hill or sat with their classmates on the grounds of the Sag Harbor Elementary School, Sag Harbor Village police, firefighters and school officials searched district buildings before giving the all-clear at about 12:15 p.m., and allowing students to return to their classrooms.
Members of the Sag Harbor Fire Department were on standby at village firehouses while the buildings were searched.
“I would like to commend and thank our staff for their professionalism and our students for their cooperation and good behavior, which enabled the evacuation process to go smoothly,” said Superintendent Katy Graves in an email to parents after students were allowed back in the building. “I also want to thank our parents for your understanding throughout today’s evacuation process.”
Ms. Graves said on Tuesday she understood that some parents were upset that it took the district about a half hour to get the word out. “The first call was to get the kids out of the building safely,” she said. “While the kids were outside texting their parents, we were calling the police, the fire department to tell them not to send the fire trucks, and the county bomb squad.” School administrators coordinated the evacuation from the parking lot next to the Pierson gym.
Chief McGuire said the bomb threat call was “very short and sweet, very nondescript.” The chief said the recorded caller “said basically, ‘There is a bomb in the building. Get out.’”
He said East Hampton Village police fielded a similar call that was received by the John Marshall Elementary School in March, forcing its evacuation.
“This is a national phenomenon,” the chief stated. “I went on Google News and entered ‘robo call bomb threat’” and saw reports of threats being received by school districts in Ohio, Massachusetts and Delaware at about the same time as Sag Harbor received its call.
“The call did not specifically mention Pierson or Sag Harbor Elementary School. This was a general bomb threat received by phone by the front desk,” said Ms. Graves. “The protocol is we hand the school building directly over to county authorities who have a bomb division that handles this. We follow their protocols, which includes a complete search of both school buildings and making contact with our parents — both of which we did.”
She said Chief McGuire was in contact with the county bomb squad as the building was searched. The chief said he and two other officers responded to Pierson and were at the scene for about an hour.
After doing his online research, Chief McGuire said he called police in Mansfield, Ohio, which has also received similar threats, to see how that community was handling things. He said police there told him “we get them so often that some of our schools have decided not to be evacuated.”
“It was clear this was meant to be disruptive in nature,” Ms. Graves said.
Chief McGuire agreed with that sentiment and said it was difficult for officials to trace the calls because they often come from overseas and are sent using computer programs that mask the sender’s identity.
“The purpose is just basically to cause chaos,” Chief McGuire said. “I can tell you there was no chaos yesterday.” He added that coincidentally, the district held a lockdown drill on Friday.
Ms. Graves said the district has a safety plan in place and is always preparing for the worst-case scenario. “I am a mom of 1,000 children,” she said.
Although the evacuation went smoothly, the superintendent said administrators would review their procedures. One change that will be implemented, she said, is a generic email or text message that will inform parents sooner in the process.
“We learned a lot because this was not a drill,” she said. “We learned how we can do it better next time.”