HANCOCK COUNTY — It started with a message scrawled on the wall of an elementary school bathroom. Something about a bomb; enough to make Eastern Hancock Community Schools administrators wary.
Melissa Falkenberg’s phone buzzed a few minutes later with an automated text message alerting her to a threat at her daughter’s school. The message was brief and succinct; it informed parents that students from the district’s elementary, middle and high schools — all of whom are housed in the same building — were being evacuated. It didn’t say where Falkenberg’s fourth-grade daughter would be taken, or if parents could come pick up their children, she said.
Falkenberg panicked, she said — the same emotion school administrators and law enforcement officials say they feel each time a threat at school arises. That feeling didn’t subside until nearly five hours later, when she learned it was a false alarm; the school had been cleared and students were back in class.
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In the past two school years, the county has seen at least six bomb threats at local schools: four at Eastern Hancock, including two last month, and two at Mt. Vernon High School, in addition to a handful of other emergency situations in the buildings or surrounding area.
Investigating threats is a well-coordinated partnership between law enforcement officers and school administrators. Whether it is substantial or not, each is treated with the utmost precaution and professionalism, police say; and the protective measures put into place are time consuming and require vast amounts of manpower, which, coupled together, often come with a hefty price tag.
Each school district is required by state law to have evacuation and emergency plans in place for an array of potential disasters. But the responses are fluid, ever-changing and sometimes updated in the heat of the moment, officials say.
Meanwhile, many parents sit idle, waiting helplessly for an update and praying their children return home safely.
Quick to the call
Greenfield Police Department Chief John Jester knows too well the feeling of shock that washes over a police officer when school administrators call about dangerous situations in their buildings. That jolt lasts only a few moments before instinct kicks in and officers start formulating an action plan, he said.
Police respond to calls at local schools with the same fervor they would to any other emergency, officers say. It’s quick and often involves departments from across Hancock County and neighboring jurisdictions if necessary.
Law enforcement is usually called to campus within minutes of a threat being detected, said Dave Pfaff, principal at Eastern Hancock Middle School and High School.
Officers meet with school officials, who catch them up on the incident and make them aware of the investigations that have already taken place, Jester said.
They then work together to scan hallways for any immediately detectable threats, Pfaff said. Teachers are told to do the same within their classrooms, he added.
Usually, the priority is to determine whether students will be evacuated from the building, Pfaff said. That decision rests on consensus between law enforcement and school administration; they take into consideration the legitimacy of the threat and other uncontrollable factors.
Officials have to be flexible in making these decisions, Jester said: if protocol is high school students are evacuated to the nearby football field, and it’s pouring rain, adjustments have to be made on the fly, he said.
“You have to be prepared, but you have to be able to bend to what the situation dictates,” he said.
A detailed decision
The number of bomb threats school districts see in a year are often sporadic, school officials say; there is often a flurry, followed by years without incident.
Motives behind bomb threats vary, but investigators said they don’t release details out of concern for copy-cat threats. Sometimes its students out to scare their peers or looking to create a hassle for their teachers, Pfaff said. The kids involved are almost always disciplined in some fashion, officials said; threats at Mt. Vernon High School in October resulted in three teenagers being arrested on felony charges of intimidation and false reporting.
Other times, the threat is made by someone with no connection to the school. In March, a Fortville man and an Anderson woman were arrested after they called in a bomb threat at Mt. Vernon High School before they robbed a nearby bank; police said they wanted to distract officers and tie them up with another emergency before heading to the bank.
Bernie Campbell, principal at Mt. Vernon High School, said the details of a threat — or lack thereof — can determine the extent of a district’s reaction.
“Some bomb threats are very general in nature — they don’t give you time or place — and others are really specific,” he said. “Based on that, our reaction is to do whatever we think we have to do to keep people safe.”
Teachers are responsible for keeping track of their students, keeping count of their kids to ensure no one is lost in the shuffle, Pfaff said. They do what they can to keep kids calm yet cognizant of the situation, all while corralling youngsters onto buses or into different buildings, in some cases.
Elementary school students often don’t understand the gravity of the situation, Pfaff said, but students across all grade levels are almost always cooperative.
Outside the building, law enforcement responds in droves. Major incidents, such as bomb threats, take an enormous amount of manpower, Fortville Police Lt. Patrick Bratton said.
Fortville’s officers have responded to two bomb threats at Mount Vernon High School this calendar year. In each instance, they called for assistance from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department and Indiana State Police, which bring along bomb-sniffing K9 officers; if the threat is large enough, further backup is usually sought from agencies in Fishers, Madison or Henry counties and Indianapolis.
Covering the nearly 300 square miles of land that comprises Hancock County puts the sheriff’s department in a unique position to play a major role in emergency responses at all schools in the area, Capt. Robert Campbell said.
Staying on top of the evacuation plans for each district can be a dogged task, he said. To ensure the school grounds are secure and the searches run smoothly, sheriff’s deputies rely heavily on the emergency command structures schools already have in place, Robert Campbell said.
It’s not uncommon for a dozen or more law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel, such as the fire department, to respond to a bomb threat, he said.
If officers are pulled from their road patrols to monitor the schools, off-duty personnel or reserve officers might be called in to cover the day-to-day emergency calls, he said.
Paying all those employees is costly, he said. The bill varies depending on how many officers need to be called in and how long it takes to investigate the threat, but ultimately, the duty to pay those salaries falls to the taxpayer.
Parents in panic
District officials alert parents to threats once they’ve assessed the severity of the situation, Pfaff said. The facts immediately shared are typically sparse — sometimes because administrators don’t yet know all the details. Other times, they want those details to remain private, he said.
The details of emergency plans are kept confidential to ensure the information doesn’t get into the wrong hands, and the plan includes a variety of responses, depending on the threat.
“You don’t want to automatically head to a predetermined site,” Pfaff said. “There’s always a variable option of where we’ll go.”
During the first threat in November at Eastern Hancock, Falkenberg said after receiving the first alert, another four hours passed before she received the all-clear. She was unsure whether her daughter was safe, or even where she was, she said.
School officials say they waited until law enforcement cleared the building and students were back in class before sending an update, Pfaff said.
After officers left Eastern’s campus, students and teachers returned to class to resume a normal class schedule.
But that lack of information caused many parents to assume the worst, Falkenberg said.
“I just want more communication,” she said. “The older kids can call their parents on their cellphones, but most of the younger kids don’t have that as an option.”
Following the second bomb threat in November, Falkenberg said she’s been forced to take matters into her own hands. She’s going to buy her daughter a cellphone this winter, years before she had planned to do so, she said.
Now, her hope is that she’ll be able to get in touch with her daughter during emergencies.
“I feel like I don’t have another option,” she said. “But at least I’ll be able to know what’s happening with her.”
An ever-changing area
While threats are disruptive to a school day, most students are unfazed, administrators say.
Michael Galyan, who teaches middle and high school students at Eastern Hancock, said his students typically detect the seriousness of the scenario and aren’t afraid and unruly.
“They trust us; I think they can tell that it’s important for them to do exactly what we say in those situations,” Galyan said.
School resource officers’ presence in each school district has helped during school-related emergencies because it gives each department better knowledge of the structure of school buildings and helps them forge relationships with students and staffers, officers said.
And officers do their best to keep up with trends in school safety protocols across the country. Discussions among the county’s school safety committee, which meets each month to discuss trends in school safety, helps them stay up-to-date on happenings in each district, Bratton said.
“Eastern may not be on the same page as Mt. Vernon, but law enforcement always needs to be on the same page,” he said.
“… You have to be able to bend to what the situation dictates.”
Greenfield Police Department Chief John Jester on law enforcement’s responses to emergency calls at local high schools
“I just want more communication. The older kids can call their parents on their cell phones, but most of the younger kids don’t have that as an option.”
Melissa Falkenberg, parent of an Eastern Hancock fourth-grader, on her daughter’s safety during potential school emergencies
“They trust us; I think they can tell that it’s important for them to do exactly what we say in those situations,”
Michael Galyan, teacher at Eastern Hancock, on his student’s reactions to emergencies at school