December 20, 2012

Police find 'no credible threat' to schools

BY LESLIE BRIDGERS Portland Press Herald


Portland Press Herald

After a couple of days of rumors, public warnings and plans for heightened security, state and local police determined Thursday that there was no message threatening schools in southern Maine.

"We've chased baseless rumors throughout the past 24 hours and found no credible threat directed at any Maine school," Col. Robert Williams, chief of Maine State Police, said in a prepared statement Thursday afternoon.

The rumors, which authorities say stemmed from talk among high school students and a letter sent by a York school administrator, led police to ramp up their presence on school campuses and parents to consider keeping their children home this week.

Although police found there was no threat made, the talk unnerved some parents and several districts said Thursday they still will have more police officers than usual at their schools as a precaution on Friday -- one week after 26 teachers and students were killed by a gunman at a Connecticut elementary school. The gunman also killed his mother before the school shooting.

Some officials are attributing the rumors and their wide circulation to heightened anxiety as a result last week's shootings, as well as predictions based on the Mayan calendar about the world ending on Friday.

Gorham Superintendent Ted Sharp wrote in a letter to parents Thursday that the two events "presented a perfect storm for emotions and euphoria to transcend what, in less stressful circumstances, would have been guided by more reasoned judgment."

Gorham police began investigating the rumors Tuesday, after learning that students were saying "that a text message had surfaced threatening violence against students at the Gorham High School on Friday," Chief Ron Shepard said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

He said Gorham police were joined by the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, Westbrook police and Windham police, as well as school officials from other towns that were "experiencing disruptions and confusion regarding the alleged text messages."

At the same time, Shepard said, a York school administrator sent a letter to other districts asking whether they had heard rumors in their schools about something bad happening on Friday in relation to the end-of-the-world prediction.

Shepard said he didn't know the name of the York official.

Debra Dunn, superintendent of York schools, said in an email Thursday evening that she is aware of "an inquiry sent to a colleague in the Windham Schools as to whether their students were also reporting rumors pursuant to Friday's end of the world/Mayan calendar issue," but she wouldn't say who sent it.

"It was really one of those things that started with a question that turned into a rumor, and here we are," Williams, of the state police, said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.

He likened the incident to a game of telephone, in which a message keeps changing as it's passed along. Williams said police usually hear about rumors when they start going around, but not this time.

"It had been spread so widely throughout York and Cumberland counties, we couldn't get it stopped immediately," he said. "This one just got way out ahead of police before we got involved."

Sharp, the Gorham superintendent, sent a letter to school officials in southern Maine on Wednesday afternoon, alerting them to the rumor of a Facebook message threatening harm to schools on Friday and that it "suggests any and all schools in York County and Cumberland County could be a target."

He later posted a letter on the Gorham School Department's website about the rumored Facebook message and the district's plan to have more police officers at schools for the rest of the week.

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