Behind the bomb threats: Felony mischief lingers in Federal Way schools

Bomb threat written on a bathroom mirror. Photo courtesy of Federal Way police. - Courtesy of the Federal Way Police Department
Bomb threat written on a bathroom mirror. Photo courtesy of Federal Way police.
— image credit: Courtesy of the Federal Way Police Department

The student scribbled a bomb threat on the wall of the bathroom in black ink because he apparently didn’t want to go to school.

“Big Boom Nov 9th Beamer Dies.”

The graffiti was discovered by Todd Beamer High School resource officer Ernest Sanders at around 2 p.m. Nov. 8, after a student told him about it. Surveillance footage was reviewed, handwriting samples collected, and by Nov. 10, the student behind the graffiti had confessed to Principal Randy Kaczor.

“He was in his 4th period, which is a marketing class talking with other students (friends) about how they did not want to be in school on Tuesday Nov. 9, 2010 … He went to the bathroom and wrote the threatening message on the wall … using a black pen,” Sanders wrote in his police report.

The student was expelled, but has since moved away from Federal Way, according to police records. If not for the sudden move, Sanders would have arrested the student, he indicated. Police have forwarded the case on to the King County Prosecutor’s Office for review.

The Todd Beamer incident is one of six bomb threats since September in Federal Way schools. Federal Way Police Department said there have been two at Decatur High School, two at Todd Beamer, plus another there last spring. The King County Sheriff’s Office is investigating two separate email threats sent to Kilo Middle School, allegedly written by the same person.

But bomb threats likely happen every school year. Federal Way police said that in 2008, there were two threats at Decatur and two at Federal Way High School. There were no reports from 2009, though Federal Way police officers do not patrol every school in the district.

The number of threats this year is “normal,” said Schools Security Manager David Remmem when asked to quantify how many threats are made in a given year.

“Some years you get more,” he said. "There's no rhyme or reason to it.”

Some officials say the students do it to get a day off. Others say it’s a matter of power. Students seem to know that bomb threats are always taken seriously, sometimes enough to shut down school, even though the consequences for making such a threat range from expulsion to jail time.

“Parents could help educate their kids,” says Federal Way police Lt. Sandy Tudor, who supervises school police officers. Parents can help their kids understand the seriousness of such a threat, she said: “It's a felony crime. Not only that, it disrupts the schools.”

The news media often cover bomb threats and the ensuing hoopla closely, but little is ever said after the fact. In the aftermath, several questions arise: Why do students make threats? To be mischievous, or is it something deeper? How do school officials and police deal with the threats and with the students that are caught? And what can be done to prevent future threats?

Why do they do it?

School and law enforcement officials said they take every bomb threat seriously, but threats often differ. Sometimes threats are more detailed, more visual. Some seem almost lazy.

Around 5 a.m. Nov. 4, Principal Pat Larson was checking her work email at home and discovered the threat in her inbox — the second in one week. It was more detailed than the Beamer threat:

“…..I’m going to burn kilo middle school and put thousands of little smoke bomb there and I know last time was not real but now I might just do it for real and put it in a spot where no one would be dumb enough to look well let the fun begin for my plans for kilo middle school and hopefully it won’t take long till the school explodes into pieces and I can’t wait to see this

happen...…” The email was allegedly sent by a student, according to a police report.

That threat was enough for Larson to shut down the school. Bomb sniffing dogs were sent in to sweep the building. Nothing was found. But the threat was underscored — noting as such in police reports — by the fact that several "sparkler bombs" were found at Kilo last April.

The two separate threats, or warnings, leveled at Decatur High School in October seem paltry compared to Kilo. On Oct. 15, a school resource officer investigated a tip from a student of a threat written on a bathroom stall door:

“There will be a bomb placed at school Monday 10/18/10. Do not come to school. Tell your friends & teachers. This is what I have been told. It will happen. Please take this seriously!”

According to the police report, the word “read” was written above with an arrow pointing to the graffiti.

Around 1 p.m. Oct. 25, a student reported yet another warning, scribbled on a bathroom mirror:

“Bomb will be put on school grounds Wednesday 10/26/10. The other one was a false alarm. Please take this one seriously. Do not come to school on Wednesday! This is serious!”

Central Washington University psychology professor Key Sun, who has worked as a counselor with the state Department of Corrections, offered a couple of theories about why students make bomb threats. A threat — as opposed to actually preparing a bomb device — is a low cost, seemingly anonymous way to feel power, he said. The student can disrupt school with just a pen and a few seconds alone in the bathroom, then can sit back and watch the action. A motivation can also be vengeance, Sun said, perhaps retaliating against an administrative punishment they felt was unfair.

“When they make a threat, they have the intention to see the consequences,” he said. “They can suddenly feel they're very powerful.”

Sun disagreed that making a threat to get a day off is a major factor. There are too many other issues at play, he said. When a person makes an excuse to get out of something, they usually try to make themselves look innocent.

“They may actually of course consider doing something they think would have an extremely negative consequence,” he said. “But there are many other factors in the middle.”

How are threats handled and what are their effects?

District officials handle each threat differently because each is unique, they say. District spokeswoman Diane Turner said that whenever a threat is discovered, parents are sent a letter and may be alerted through a sort of reverse 911 system called ConnectEd. Neither Turner nor Remmem could recall whether the Beamer threat caused an immediate alert to parents, or if parents were notified after the the threat had expired.

“It's going to vary. Each threat is unique. There are a lot of different factors: When is the threat received? When is it to occur? Do we need to evacuate, relocate the students?” Remmem said when asked what the district’s response is to a bomb threat.

Turner said that it’s possible some incidents are not reported to parents until after they are over. Sometimes, the threats don’t even specify a date.

Larson said that the Nov. 4 threat at Kilo, aside from shutting down school until 9 a.m., had different effects on different student populations. For those born in the U.S. or who emigrated here from a war-torn country, a bomb threat might be a little easier to swallow; they might be used to such events. But some students are just not used to dealing with such threats, she said.

The threat has a “different effect on different people. Obviously, it disrupted learning and teaching,” she said. She could could not immediately put a number to how many students stayed away from school on that day, but said that it was more than on a typical day of school.

Her first reaction after receiving the threat, she said, was to go into “response mode.” First, she contacted Remmem, who coordinated with King County sheriff's deputies to secure the school.

“Any anxiety or fear comes later,” she said. “My reaction was, ‘OK, who do I call first?’”

Upon arriving at school, she stood outside and waved away parents dropping off their kids. Some kids went home and stayed put, and others were driven back after the district alerted parents that the school was clear.

The next day, she said, school was relatively normal.

“I can only gauge parent reaction by concerned phone and emails, and there were none,” she said. “Attendance was back where it needed to be the next day.”

What’s the punishment?

The district punishes threat makers severely. According to the district's student conduct policies, bomb threats fall under a category of offenses that can be met with immediate suspension or expulsion on the first offense.

“We have to take any threat to our schools very seriously to keep our schools and the environment safe,” Turner said. “We work very, very closely with the local authorities. We depend on them to advise us and work with us.”

A state law makes it illegal to threaten to bomb or injure any school building, or any public place. That law also makes it illegal to repeat a knowingly false threat with the intent of causing disruption. It’s a Class B felony, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, a $20,000 fine or both.

The school system must work with a variety of law enforcement agencies because the district overlaps surrounding cities and parts of unincorporated King County. Federal Way police handled the investigation at Beamer, while King County Sheriff deputies worked on the Kilo incidents.

Wyman Yip, King County Deputy Prosecutor for juveniles, said his office sees a handful of school bomb threat cases each year.

Yip said there’s a “strange twist” in the way the state Supreme Court has interpreted the threat law. Prosecutors have to prove that the intended victim heard the threat and felt afraid.

“Oftentimes you have a scenario where a person makes a threat to Person A: ‘I'm going to go to school tomorrow and shoot Person B.’ Then, that threat is never relayed to Person B. If Person A thinks the kid is going to do it and reports it and the police get involved, the Supreme Court has ruled that's not a crime because the kid did not actually threaten Person A, he threatened Person B,” he said.

The law does not address graver threats like talk of specific violence against individuals. The spirit of the law seems to be in preventing disruptive and bogus bomb threats.

In 2007, a 15-year-old student at Black Hills High School in Olympia, was arrested by Thurston County deputies under the law after he wrote a note a bathroom wall saying that he would blow up the school with C4. School was disrupted after the threat, and detectives caught the kid by reviewing handwriting samples.

Prosecutors may not even see all the bomb threat cases out there. Yip guessed that some potential criminal matters — from bomb threats to schoolyard fights — may be resolved at the school level. And some minor incidents, like a minor schoolyard shuffle, should be, he said.

“We need to figure out which are the real threats versus the ones where kids are trying to get out of school,” he said. “The courts have determined that we need to prove that it's a real threat, versus an idle threat.”

Surveillance technology, school policies

Absent surveillance footage or an electronic trail, like with an email, bomb threat perpetrators can be tough to track down. Remmem said that his officers — a separate force from school resource police officers — try to foster relationships with students so that they feel comfortable sharing information. The school system also operates an anonymous tip line. These tactics, he said, come into play when technological evidence is unavailable.

Two of this year's threat makers were caught by technology. At Beamer, surveillance footage narrowed down a suspect, and Remmem reported that King County deputies were able to track down the Internet protocol address of where the Kilo email threat originated. The Decatur threat is unsolved, and a review of surveillance footage came up empty, according to a police report.

Federal Way High School Principal Lisa Griebel has a novel approach the problem of bomb threats, especially those done by graffiti: prevention and deterrence.

Griebel said that three years ago, the school installed surveillance cameras to observe the entrances to bathrooms. The bathrooms are also checked after each class change to round up errant students and to look out for graffiti. Griebel describes it as a strict “campus supervision model.”

“We’ve had no bomb threats on bathroom walls, and hardly any graffiti,” she said.

Three students were caught and expelled for writing graffiti on bathroom walls immediately after the cameras went up, Griebel said. Students wised up quickly after that, she said.

Sun suggested that a good deterrent might be the only one that can’t be done: not paying the threats any attention. Sun said that news coverage of the response to a threat — Kilo’s scare was covered by media up and down Puget Sound — especially can embolden others to try it out.

Indeed, the alleged perpetrator of the Todd Beamer threat said he got the idea from the Decatur incident:

“I know that Decatur High School (had) previous threats of someone writing bomb threats,” Sanders wrote in a transcript of a phone interview he did with the student. “I acted alone … I told (my) friends later about the note and we all went to principal Kaczor and told him of the bomb threat.”

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