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Schools And Law Enforcement Taking Notice Of Recent Threats

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There has been a recent string of bomb threats and cyber attacks at schools across New England. Both schools and law enforcement agencies are paying attention.According to the Associated Press, nearly a dozen schools and colleges in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut have received the threats in the past week, forcing evacuations and cancellations.

On Monday, North Adams Police received a call saying two bombs were set to go off on the campus of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The campus was evacuated and no explosives were found. Twenty-one-year-old Jarret Ferriter has been charged with willful communication of a bomb threat. On his Facebook page, Ferriter identifies himself as an MCLA student. Police say Ferriter’s roommate said Ferriter mentioned making a bomb threat to avoid going to class. MCLA public safety director Joseph Charon says the college tries to determine the credibility of a threat when it’s reported.

“That’s a challenge,” Charon said. “So that’s why it’s important to take these types of threats seriously and put personal safety first and foremost at the forefront of our decision-making process. Based on that, you could understand why we chose to evacuate the entire campus given the limited information that we had that initially came in during the report.”

A spokesman from nearby Williams College says the school did not take any specific action in response to Monday’s threat at MCLA. On the same day, Winchester High School cancelled classes in the Boston suburb after receiving an emailed threat. Special Agent Mark Karangekis, spokesman for the FBI’s Springfield office, says the FBI is aware of these cases and is working with local authorities and the schools.

The incident at MCLA was the second bomb threat in less than two years. The University of Connecticut experienced a bomb threat in August and several earlier in the spring, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz. The reports turned out to be false, but Reitz says the university urges people to not be complacent or ignore future warnings.

“We generally do not know right away if they are going to end up being a hoax or if there is something there,” Reitz said. “So we always, always treat it as if there is a potential danger there and we tell people to let at in that way.”

Special Agent Karangekis says false reports do not degrade the law enforcement response to future reports. Reitz says false reports allow schools to review response plans, but are also extremely disruptive and frustrating.

“I hear that around our campus quite a bit of students who are very frustrated,” she said. “They cannot understand why someone would think that this is a good idea when in this real world of potential dangers we live in, it’s an alarming thing.”

Reitz says the recent incidents at UConn did not originate from someone connected to the university.

“It’s very hard for us to take any sort of a guess from one person to the next as to what their motivation might be,” Reitz said. “But we emphasize very strongly it’s not funny, it’s not cool, it’s immensely illegal and we treat it that way.”

At the beginning of October, a bomb threat led to the evacuation of the relocated Sandy Hook Elementary School in Monroe, Connecticut. The original school in Newtown was torn down last year where a gunman killed 20 first-grade students and six educators in December 2012.

In the wake of the shooting, Connecticut created a commission to review public safety policies and make recommendations about school safety, mental health, and gun violence prevention. The Sandy Hook Advisory Committee expects to release a final report in the coming weeks following multiple meetings since January 2013. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security released its recommendations in July. Created by Governor Deval Patrick in January, Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral led the task force along with the secretaries of education and health and human services.

“In terms of the overall safety incidents that happen at schools the shootings are a small percentage,” Cabral said in January when the task force was formed. “So there’s more to school safety than just preparing yourself against a lone school shooter. There are a number of other kinds of safety incidents that come up at schools. So this planning should be comprehensive and holistic it shouldn’t be just geared toward what happens if a kid comes to school with a gun.”

There have also been recent cyber attacks against schools. Officials at Massachusetts Maritime Academy say the college's website was hacked by what appears to be an Islamic extremist group. Visitors to the school’s website were redirected to a site showing a photograph of an American soldier's grave, with audio of a man speaking Arabic. Meanwhile, Pittsfield Public Schools’ website fell victim to a denial of service attack at the beginning of the school year. Dr. Larry Snyder directs the Cybersecurity Management program at Bay Path College.

“If it’s directed at a business the motivation might be that the person wants to cause financial harm to business by shutting down their servers, they can’t conduct business,” Snyder said. “To direct a public school, where they’re not in the business of making money, to me says that it’s something different. It’s more of an act of protest.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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