While schools across much of Maine have faced safety threats in recent weeks, with some prompting schools to close, Maine school safety experts say there’s no cause for alarm.
The threats prompted different reactions in each targeted school, and the fact that they didn’t materialize and students were able to safely return to school or keep learning showed that Maine school administrators successfully put safety protocols and training they’ve received over the years to use.
“Schools should have, at this point in time, really good, sound protocols in place, and it didn’t sound like any of the schools had any issues navigating this,” said Jonathan Shapiro, director of the recently formed Maine School Safety Center at the Maine Department of Education. “They took care of it with their stakeholders, they made the decisions they needed to make, and it worked out well.”
In the span of a little more than a week, schools in Lewiston, the Standish area, Bangor and Old Town faced threats or suspicious messages that caused school officials to take precautions to ensure students’ safety.
Police officers were dispatched to Lewiston High School on Sept. 23 as a precaution and to look into a suspicious note found at the school, but administrators didn’t shut down school for the day.
LPD has officers on site at LHS for additional presence and is investigating a suspicious note that was found as a precaution. At this time, we do not feel the need to lockdown or dismiss and LPD continues to be present on site and investigate.— Jake Langlais (@kjlanglais) September 23, 2021
At Old Town High School, officials found a note written on a first-floor bathroom wall last Wednesday, on Sept. 29, that presented a threat to student and staff safety. As a result, the school was closed Thursday, but reopened the next day with an increased police presence.
Also on Sept. 29, more than 100 miles away in Standish, Bonny Eagle High School officials and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office became aware of a picture circulating on social media that showed a handwritten message describing a threat, according to the sheriff’s office.
Although officials could not determine the origin of the threat nor its physical location, and they said it didn’t name a specific school or district, all schools in School Administrative District 6 — which includes Bonny Eagle — were closed Thursday.
Portland High School officials decided to call off in-person classes in favor of remote learning that same day out of an abundance of caution.
Then on Friday, in Bangor, officials at the Fairmount School evacuated students and staff after a threat was found written inside the school. But after a police search of the building with a bomb dog, students returned to the building.
The spate of threats shows how information — and misinformation — travels fast through social media and because students with access to cell phones can text their parents with information, but often before they have all the facts, said Maine Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux.
“It creates these distractions and also heightens those anxieties around what’s happening,” she said.
Threats to schools can result from several factors, Shapiro said. But the precipitating factor can often be any sort of angst or increased levels of anxiety in communities, he said. That anxiety can come from a school year happening in the midst of a pandemic.
But schools are in a better position than ever to respond to such threats, said Robert Susi, the Maine School Safety Center’s school safety and security coordinator.
“The great thing about schools is that you don’t normally hear about what’s going on in the school because it’s a credit to the administration who just keeps it going and keeps it as a regular running day,” Susi said. “They got through it and got through it very well.”
The fact that schools in the affected districts over the past week-and-a-half were able to return to “business as usual” is a big deal and should be applauded, Shapiro said.
“There’s a lot of foundational work to build that community of communication and make sure you have strong relationships between everybody within the school and your external partners and your parents,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro advised parents to wait to hear from administrators, as opposed to “the rumor mill that’s generating on social media.”