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[whitespace] bomb threat Calling Charge: Hoax calls can send school administrators, teachers and students scrambling.


9/11 Fallout

How best to respond to a bomb threat? That question is being asked increasingly as hoaxers exploit a population terrorized by 9/11. Locally, administrators at Santa Cruz High School have dealt with two bomb threats in the past four weeks, and each time their response has differed.

On receiving the first threat, on Sept. 18, administrators evacuated teachers and students--then asked teachers to return to their rooms and, with the assistance of district personnel and the Santa Cruz Police Department, search for suspicious-looking packages or things out of place.

Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Roy Nelson explains that the district is trying to work with law enforcement, "whose position is to not go into the premises or send in dogs unless something obvious seems suspicious. The responsibility for deciding that lies with owners of premises."

Nuz, whose work space is a mess of strange-looking documents and parcels, can understand how we would be best qualified to say whether anything in our surrounds looked unusual. But though statistics show most bomb threats to be hoaxes, we doubt whether, faced with sucha dilemma, Nu-z would want to go snoping for potentially explosive packages.

In a letter of Sept. 18 addressed to students, parents and guardians, Santa Cruz High School Principal Tony Kuns wrote, "We want you to know that we place the safety of students at the very top of our priorities. In spite of the disruption and loss of class time, we feel we must be very cautious, and we will take these situations seriously."

But as one SCHS teacher, requesting anonymity, pointed out, using "student safety arguments as a rationale to ask teaching staff to risk their lives is hypocritical. After the first threat, we were told that student safety comes first, but you can't do that by sending in untrained people."

Accusing the district of "gambling with probability factors that this is not a risk," the teacher added, "we don't know what a bomb looks like--but we are asked to make sure the rooms were safe. But what if we do find a bomb and trigger it off, thereby endangering everyone?"

Reiterating that police typically don't come in and search, unless they feel there is evidence to support that action, Kuns said, "If there's a suspicious package, the police call the bomb squad. And, there are things we listen for to tell us whether a threat has a high probability of being real."

Evidently, the nature of the second SCHS bomb threat, which occurred Oct. 3, led administrators to conclude that it was low-probability. Administrators contacted the SCPD and informed the staff, who were asked to check their areas, but this time around the district decided to neither evacuate nor alert the students, a decision that worries our tipster. "I felt we were being dishonest with the students and parents, and that I was being dishonest with myself. Next time, I'll refuse to do it," the teacher said.

Emphasizing that evidence suggested there was no cause to evacuate, Kuns says he asked staff to search without alerting students, because he didn't want to panic everyone unnecessarily. But he did send a note home to parents, in which he alerted them to what had happened.

Wrote Kuns, "We do take these kinds of threats extremely seriously, and our response to any threat will depend on the information and/or physical evidence at hand."

Kuns, who was debriefing a group of parents about the first bomb threat when an assistant principal walked in with news of the second, says he did tell the assembled parents, who asked if he was going to evacuate. "I said, 'No,' but that they could leave if they felt uncomfortable, which they did," says Kuns. Later that day at Back-to-School Night, Kuns told parents he understood some would prefer that he evacuate immediately.

"But if we evacuated every time, we'd have a bomb scare every week because some student thinks it's funny or whatever," Kuns told Nu-z, admitting that asking staff to check an area that had already been evacuated, as occurred after the first threat, wasn't a good decision. "Even if an evacuation is done as a precautionary measure, it gives the message that the chances of a bomb are high. Why would anyone want to go back in under those conditions? We need to rethink that kind of action and not ask staff to do anything that would jeopardize them."

Asked if teachers who refuse to search would face any disciplinary action, Kuns said teachers are mandated by law to be responsible for student safety, above their own. "According to the Education Code, a teacher's obligation is to be here and make sure students are safe before they leave. But we don't expect the staff to pick up and lift things or search every nook and cranny."

Adding that some staff are ready to search, others want to evacuate immediately, and still others wish to never go out on these scares because of the disruption, Kuns says, "We are weighing the disruption evacuation causes, which is great, with the probability that this is real."

Meanwhile, insisting that "no employee would be reprimanded if they refused to search a classroom," superintendent Nelson said he feels this latest wave of threats is directly related to the events of Sept. 11: "In the seven years I've been a superintendent, we only had one bomb threat like the last two, and only one occurrence of a package that turned out to be a look-alike device. But I don't think this is like Columbine. Whoever is doing this is playing on existing tension in society right now, rather than trying to inflict any physical harm."

Says Kuns, "Since Sept. 11, we worry that if we don't, we are going to be making a mistake. And we also have to consider how everybody is going to feel. emotionally." But as Nu-z' anonymous tipster points out, "If we learned anything from Columbine and other school shootings, it's to take them seriously."

Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz City School District has installed phone-call tracing software and the district is offering a $1,000 reward to any student who can provide the names of individuals who make these kind of threats. Call 429.3958.

Racist Backlash

Returning from a meeting in multicultural Oakland, UCSC Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood, was shocked to discover that "expressions of bigotry and hatred" had taken place on the UCSC campus. According to a campus email sent out by Greenwood, anti-Muslim remarks were shouted on Oct. 2 at one student, who subsequently filed a formal complaint with the director of Student Judicial Affairs.

Meanwhile, Oakes College staff removed anti-Semitic and white-supremacist fliers from bulletin boards at the college, while a College Eight administrator reported that anti-Semitic fliers that referenced "a hideously racist website" were found stapled to the top of picnic tables. And on Oct. 3, students at the Oakes College bus stop found a racist flier targeting African Americans .

Outraged, students have organized meetings and workshops to talk about these responses., while Greenwood, noting that "this is a time of great anxiety and stress for us all," urges people to report any such incidents. To do so, email [email protected] or call 459.4497. Also, call the UCSC Police anonymous tip line at 459.3847 or email www2.ucsc.edu/police/crimestop/.


Significant events in the week ahead include:

Race and the Crisis: A Conversation in the Aftermath of 9/11, on Oct. 17 at 8pm at the Holy Cross Parish Hall, 170 High St. Speakers include Angela Davis, Maha El-Genaidi (founder of the Islamic Networks Group) and Bob Wing, founding editor of COLORLINES--with a reading by John Brown Childs.

Recognizing that many citizens are planning to attend the Santa Cruz City Council's Town Meeting about Sept. 11, also slated for Oct. 17, organizers of the Race event pushed back their start time to 8pm so folks could also do the town meeting, which actually starts at 6pm (not at 6:30pm as Nu-z reported last week) and takes place at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium).

Signs of the Apocalypse?

A group of underground newspaper publishing vets has published what they claim is the first special edition antiwar publication in the United States since Sept. 11.

Available at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Jahva House, Cafe Pergolesi, Louden Nelson Center, Saturn Cafe and the Resource Center for Nonviolence, Peace News features pieces by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only person in Congress to vote against granting Bush full war powers, Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk and Maxine Hong Kingston to name a few. And now that the United States has unleashed "a military counteroffensive against terrorism," commuters will see more Early Risers for Peace, Tuesdays at the intersection of Highway 1 and River Street by the "Welcome to Santa Cruz" sign." Call 469.3306. Meanwhile, the drumming-beleaguered and gadfly-pestered Janet Blaser has resigned as manager of the Santa Cruz Farmers' Market.

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From the October 10-17, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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