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[whitespace] Copycat hoaxes bedevil local schools and police

Saratoga--A recent spate of hoaxes and other empty threats throughout the state has not spared local schools.

After nearly two hours of searching for a bomb recently at Prospect High School in Saratoga, and not finding one, police determined that the bomb threat was a hoax--one of several that have plagued Bay Area schools.

The hoaxes follow the high-profile case that occurred nearly three months ago at De Anza College in Cupertino, when police discovered a stockpile of weapons they believe were to be used in a planned attack on the school.

Prospect isn't the only school on the west side of the county that's received threats. At Westmont High School in Campbell, a 15-year-old student wrote, "Everyone will die on March 21" on two desks.

The student didn't have any bombs or guns, and told the San Jose Police Department he'd written the threat as a joke. But police and school administrators took it more seriously. Police arrested him, and administrators suspended him and began the process of expelling the student from the school.

Although Westmont High School workers tried to tell parents what happened by printing fliers and calling homes, misinformation spread. One parent, whom Principal Bob Serpa said had probably been unable to get through the school's busy phone lines, posted a message on the Parent Teacher Student Association website that said a student with a hit list of victims had a planned date for a massacre. More than 600 of the 1,600 students in the student body didn't show up for school on Tuesday, March 20.

The next day, the attendance secretary at Prospect called the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office at about 8:25 a.m., saying that someone who sounded like a young male had just called the school about a bomb threat. Sheriff's officers, San Jose Police officers and faculty members searched the school until about 10:15 a.m. and found nothing, so police determined that the threat was a hoax.

Unlike previous bomb hoaxes at California schools, law enforcement agents and faculty members didn't tell students and other faculty members to evacuate the buildings at Prospect, because they didn't interpret the situation as one that required an evacuation, Sgt. Robert Linderman of the sheriff's office said. They didn't want to create a panic when there may have not been a threat, and people could've gotten hurt while trying to evacuate, according to Linderman.

The next day, the same person who called in the bomb threat called the school again, telling faculty members and police where to look and where not to look for the bomb. It seemed as though he was watching them search, according to Principal Rita Matthews. Matthews said she thought the caller was definitely a Prospect student and that there was probably more than one student involved in the hoaxes.

A week later, Prospect received another phone call, which seemed to be from a different person. This person also sounded like a male juvenile. According to the sheriff's log, he asked for the dean and said that his friend was going to bring a gun onto campus that day. Matthews said that this person was probably not a Prospect student and was probably an outsider, who either had graduated from the school, or had problems with the school in the past.

The school is working with Pacific Bell to trace the calls. The high school has a list of suspects, and school officials hope a combination of resources will eventually bear fruit. If the suspects are found, they will be arrested and charged with felonies. If either student turns out to be a Prospect student, the school will act for his expulsion.

"We are taking it very seriously, and we will prosecute to the full extent of the law," Matthews said.

Before Prospect received the first phone call, Matthews wrote parents another memo, which referred to the Westmont incident. Prospect students had heard a rumor that Westmont students were going to come to their campus and assault them. Matthews sent the memo to reassure parents that there hadn't been any threats made to Prospect students at that time.

Rumors of bomb threats have also spread to Los Gatos. According to Paul Alioto, principal of Fisher Middle School, a former Fisher student and his friend, who attends Fisher, allegedly overheard a drunk man at Round Table Pizza say that Fisher students didn't have to go to school the next day--March 26, a Monday--because he was going to blow up the school. The statement was reported to school officials and the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department, who didn't consider it to be a serious threat. Police are investigating the credibility and story of the former student.

When a small group of Fisher parents began a phone tree, it caused more parents to become concerned. Although Alioto prepared a memo for secretaries to read to parents who called the school to ask about the alleged bomb threat, he did not make an announcement of the event, because he feared it would add credibility to the rumor. According to the memo Alioto wrote, parents "have turned a nonevent into an issue that requires explanation."

Alioto said that, as an administrator, he had experienced bomb threats before, and "this is no bomb threat," he said. "This was a nonevent for Fisher Middle School." He was reticent for newspapers to report on it because he was afraid it would perpetuate mass hysteria and more rumors.

Since Jan. 30, at least five other schools--A.P. Giannini Middle School in San Francisco, Britton Middle School in Morgan Hill, Las Positas College in Livermore, Mountain View High School and Santa Clara University--have received threats of violence that turned out to be hoaxes. The incidents at Britton and Mountain View took place after two students were killed and 13 were injured at the school shooting in Santee on March 5.
Rebecca Ray

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