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Schools wrestle with bomb threat response

As the first wave of students sauntered down the halls of Grand Island High School last Monday morning, the phone rang at 911 dispatch on the island.

"There are bombs in the Grand Island schools," the caller said.

The threat turned out to be bogus. But the response, Superintendent Thomas Ramming concedes, was not a stellar execution of the school's emergency plan. As a result, the district's emergency system is under review.

Less than seven minutes after the bomb threat was called in, a deputy had arrived at the gas station pay phone where the call was placed. But nearly an hour went by before the first patrol car reached the high school. Much of the first class period was over before the school went into lockdown.

The district's emergency plan for dealing with bomb threats rests on the assumption that a threat would be phoned to the school. But the 7:03 a.m. call went to fire dispatch, through 911.

Before the dispatcher could transfer the call to the Sheriff's Department, the caller vowed to call back then hung up. The dispatcher called the Sheriff's Department right away -- but wasn't able to play back the call.

"If we could have listened to the call, we may have been able to better respond," Sheriff's Department Chief Dennis Rankin said.

One deputy headed to the island's dispatch center to listen to the call. The other deputy went to the gas station to check the pay phone in case the caller returned. While at the gas station, the deputy's patrol car was struck in a minor accident, taking him out of service for a while.

Even after the deputy at the dispatch center listened to the call, which school was being threatened remained unclear, Rankin said. Sending deputies to all five Grand Island schools wasn't feasible. Deputies needed to pin down the threat more precisely.

Authorities called the high school, but the principal and assistant principal were home sick -- the first time in nine years that the two have been out on the same day, Ramming said.

So deputies left a message. Principal James Dempsey got the message at home and called back, but several minutes were lost. By then, it was 7:25 a.m. -- more than 20 minutes after the bomb threat had been received and 10 minutes after school started.

Dempsey called Ramming's cell phone, but the superintendent was on his way to work, with his cell phone off. By the time he got to his office and heard Dempsey's message, 40 minutes had elapsed since the 911 call came in.

About 15 minutes later -- around 8 a.m. -- the first deputy arrived at the high school, and it was locked down.

"We found out now that all the buildings were potentially at risk," Ramming said.

But law enforcement authorities did not call the middle school or three elementary schools -- yet another hole in communications. (The elementary schools were determined to be at low risk, because they had not been open to the public during the weekend.)

Once deputies arrived at the high school, glitches continued. The Sheriff's Department's bomb-sniffing dog was still in Detroit on assignment at the Super Bowl. The school ended up bringing in two dogs from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and another from the State Police.

By 10:30 a.m. -- 3 1/2 hours after the bomb threat was received -- the building was declared safe, and high school classes resumed their normal schedule.

At the adjacent middle school, students, who arrived shortly after 9 a.m., were held on school buses then bused to two elementary schools until the middle school was cleared.

Rankin says that the Sheriff's Department responded much as it should have.

"Our coverage time was well within any expectation anyone should have had," he said. "I believe our officers did an adequate job in responding. We followed the protocol set by the school."

Investigators are looking for the person who called in the threat. The high school's resource officer, a state trooper, is arranging a meeting of school, town and law enforcement officials to figure out what went wrong -- and how to fix it.

"I feel terrible the situation occurred," Ramming said. "On the other hand, I'm relieved that no students or staff were hurt. Once we got the plan in place, it generally worked the way it was supposed to."

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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