Latest School Safety Threat Unlike Others

BERLIN — After a couple weeks of relative calm, three Worcester County schools and one in Wicomico on Tuesday afternoon received automated threats to the safety of students and staff, resulting this time in a “shelter in place” response as opposed to the evacuation plans utilized previously.

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Tuesday, automated “robo-call” type threats were received at Stephen Decatur Middle School, Stephen Decatur High School and Snow Hill High School. Around the same time, a similar threat was called in Wicomico High School in Salisbury. In each case, law enforcement was immediately contacted and a decision was made to keep students and staff in place while law enforcement swept the facilities for any perceived threats. About an hour later, the all-clear was given and regular school operations resumed.

For a span of about two weeks last month, a string of bomb threats were called into area schools and elsewhere. It started on a Tuesday with a bomb threat called into Ocean City Elementary, followed by another bomb threat at Stephen Decatur High School the following day. Two days later, robo-call bomb threats were called in to the Board of Education about all local schools and the next week another threat was called into Decatur High School.

Locally, at least, that threat at Decatur was the last for a period of about two weeks, although similar threats continued to be called into schools elsewhere. Also during that two-week stretch, robo-call bomb threats were called in to the Public Safety Building in Ocean City and the Berlin Police Department.

While school officials and law enforcement have been fairly mum on the latest threats this week, it appears the latest incidents were different in a couple of ways. For example, school officials are charactering the latest calls as “threats” to student safety, but aren’t calling them “bomb threats” as they did in the previous incidents. Perhaps more importantly, during each of the incidents this week, students and staff remained in their school buildings while the threats were investigated and cleared, as opposed to the evacuations last month. Trusted sources indicate that’s because the threat referenced a sniper on the roof of the schools.

“We received threats at Stephen Decatur Middle, Stephen Decatur High School and Snow Hill High School,” said Worcester County Public Schools Coordinator of Public Relations and Special Programs Carrie Sterrs shortly after the incidents on Tuesday. “I can’t give detail as to what the threat indicated, but our students and staff are secure. We made that decision in cooperation with law enforcement.”

Sterr’s statement went on to explain the decision to secure in place rather than evacuate.

“In accordance with our protocol, law enforcement was immediately notified and all students and staff were placed in a secure location,” the statement reads. “We are working in partnership with the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office to evaluate the safety of security of the buildings and the surrounding areas while ensuring all of our students and staff are safe.”

A short time later, Worcester County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jerry Wilson released his own formal statement on the incidents.

“Today, three of our schools received automated phone calls detailing a threat to the safety of those students and staff,” Wilson’s statement reads. “As with any threat received, law enforcement was contacted immediately, and at the request of law enforcement, all affected students and staff were secured in place. It is important to note that any threat received is individually evaluated to ensure that our schools respond in the safest, most effective manner given the circumstances.”

Wilson’s statement went on to say the school system would continue to work closely with law enforcement and continue to re-evaluate its response plans in the face of future threats.

“I am deeply troubled that these threats have once again disrupted our students’ education,” the statement reads. “We will continue to work collaboratively with law enforcement to identify the sources of these threats. In addition, we will be vigilant in our response to all threats. We will do what is necessary to ensure that our schools remain safe for learning, which is what our students deserve.”

Meanwhile, Wicomico County Public Schools reacted in much the same way during and after the threat at Wicomico High School on Tuesday. Like Worcester, Wicomico has seen its fair share of threats over the last several weeks and in most cases evacuated the schools, although there was at least one incident during which students and staff remained in the building. On Tuesday, the decision was made early in Wicomico to keep students and staff in place rather than evacuate.

“School safety staff are working with law enforcement after Wicomico High School received an automated bomb message threat on Tuesday, Feb. 9,” the statement reads. “Students and staff are safe in place as the school is being searched. We are handling this matter with the safety of students and staff as our highest priority.”