Ongoing efforts to end the bomb threats plaguing the Columbus Municipal School District have been increased, with a public school safety meeting slated Thursday at 4 p.m. at Brandon Central Services.
Fairview Elementary Aerospace and Science Magnet School received a bomb threat shortly after 8 a.m. Monday morning, the second threat the school has received in less than two weeks. Students were evacuated to nearby Fairview Baptist Church, and a canine unit from Columbus Air Force Base searched the premises, but no explosives were found.
Columbus Police Department Public Information Officer Glenda Buckhalter said the CPD plans to speak with district officials about the department conducting a general assembly at each school, including the schools which haven’t received threats.
The city has taken the brunt of the nine bomb threats received this school year, with threats against Columbus Middle School on Sept. 16, Fairview Elementary on March 9 and March 19 and Columbus High School on Jan. 27, Feb. 16, Feb. 22 and March 6.
New Hope High School, located in the Lowndes County School District, received bomb threats Sept. 15 and Jan. 13.
City and county law enforcement confirmed four juveniles, believed to be connected to at least four of the nine incidents, have been arrested.
The CPD arrested a 17-year-old juvenile in connection with the Feb. 16 and Feb. 22 threats against Columbus High School; the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office arrested a 14-year-old and two 15-year-olds in connection with the Sept. 15 threat against New Hope High School and the Sept. 16 threat against Columbus Middle School.
Last week, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation spoke to the Columbus-Lowndes County Emergency Management Local Emergency Planning Committee. FBI Special Agent Chris Michaelson said the bureau will take the lead on bomb cases considered to be domestic terrorism, but because the arrests so far have involved juveniles, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Lowndes County Juvenile Detention Center.
Youth Court Administrator Jason Collins said he could not release the names or status of the four juveniles who were arrested. Collins noted most past bomb threats he handled were made by students who wanted to be dismissed from school early.
“They don’t understand the ramifications,” Collins said. “This costs thousands of dollars every time they do this.”
The financial impact of the recent threats remains to be seen. Buckhalter explained the department recently tried to tally the monetary impact of each threat, which takes an average of three to four hours to clear and involves responders from the police department, sheriff’s office, Columbus Fire and Rescue and other agencies. LCSO Chief Deputy Marc Miley said he is not certain how much money his department loses every time officers are called out to a false threat.
“I don’t think (students) realize how serious the crimes are that they’re committing,” Buckhalter said. “So we’re going to impress that upon them and let them know the penalties if they’re caught. You’re taking people off their jobs and they’re losing hours and time. And if something catastrophic happens (elsewhere in the city), we have people over there for just an empty threat.”
School officials equally are frustrated.
“Although we take each and every bomb threat seriously, we are also dedicated to ensuring the recent rash of prank bomb threat callers are identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Liddell said Monday. “We have involved the FBI, at this point. Our students’ education is being affected, and lost instructional time will have to be made up.”
The Mississippi Department of Education requires students to receive 180 days of instruction. Days lost from inclement weather — or for any other reason — must be made up before the end of the year.
Liddell said the lost days will most likely require students at affected schools to make up the hours after school or on Saturdays.
But MDE Spokesman Pete Smith said even though instruction time is placed at a risk when schools are evacuated for threats, the safety of the students must be the district’s priority.
“You don’t want any students to miss good quality time with their teachers, but any threat a district receives has to be taken seriously,” Smith said Monday.
Possible alternatives to a full and immediate school evacuation include low-profile searches by staff of the premises, comprehensive searches by staff or partial evacuation. In some cases, experts say, evacuation may place students and faculty at greater risk of injury if a bomb is detonated, because large numbers of students would be moving through public areas, making them more vulnerable.
Liddell said the district is committed to solving the issue, and a number of experts and education officials will attend Thursday night’s meeting to brainstorm ways to make schools safer.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.