2016-02-04 / Front Page

Hoaxes Disrupt Schools

By Newport This Week Staff

Newport public school students experienced a disruptive week after law enforcement officials responded to several days of threats that culminated in an evacuation at Rogers High School on Wednesdy, Feb. 3.

The threats, made through an automated system, were declared hoaxes by law enforcement.

Officials say the incident is part of an emerging trend that uses technology to anonymously threaten schools. Although federal officials have released little information about the nature of the threats and their ongoing investigations, a 23-year-old man pleaded guilty last year to conspiring with Xbox Live players in making threats against a number of schools in Connecticut.

“We are going to establish a protocol for this,” said Mayor Jeanne- Marie Napolitano. “We need to develop a cohesive way of handling this type of thing.” She said such hoaxes achieve exactly what the perpetrators want. “They want to take the kids out of school. It’s incredibly disruptive and it can’t go on. And we have been making such good progress with attendance.”


Newport police and their vehicles take over an entrance to Rogers High School this week amid several days of high tension caused by anonymous threats made against Rogers, as well as Thompson Middle School on Broadway and Claiborne Pell Elementary School on Dexter St. in the city’s North End. Meanwhile (inset), members of the Rogers faculty gather outside Fire Station #2 on Old Fort Road as police comb the corridors, presumably searching for a bomb. While the threats all turned out to be hoaxes, they disrupted classes in the schools and prompted some parents to either keep their children home from school entirely or to pick them up early. Police, meanwhile, promise to maintain a strong presence at all three of the schools to ensure safety as they continue to investigate the source of the threats. 
(Photos by Olga Enger) Newport police and their vehicles take over an entrance to Rogers High School this week amid several days of high tension caused by anonymous threats made against Rogers, as well as Thompson Middle School on Broadway and Claiborne Pell Elementary School on Dexter St. in the city’s North End. Meanwhile (inset), members of the Rogers faculty gather outside Fire Station #2 on Old Fort Road as police comb the corridors, presumably searching for a bomb. While the threats all turned out to be hoaxes, they disrupted classes in the schools and prompted some parents to either keep their children home from school entirely or to pick them up early. Police, meanwhile, promise to maintain a strong presence at all three of the schools to ensure safety as they continue to investigate the source of the threats. (Photos by Olga Enger) The mayor said Newport is not alone in dealing with these matters. “Other communities are facing the same thing.”


Several law enforcement agencies responded to the evacuation of Rogers High School. 
(Photo by Olga Enger) Several law enforcement agencies responded to the evacuation of Rogers High School. (Photo by Olga Enger) Napolitano said the FBI is involved in the investigation.

Meanwhile, Newport Police declared, “We would like to remind the public that all matters concerning the public safety of the city of Newport will be taken seriously. This was, in fact, a computer automated call that did not pose any immediate threat to either the Newport schools or the citizens of Newport.”

What follows is a school-by-school report on the impact of the threats.

Rogers High School

After the first two threats on Sunday night and early Tuesday morning were determined to be unfounded, school was not canceled. The Rhode Island State Police received a similar call around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, stating that propane tanks were placed around Rogers, which led to an evacuation and school dismissal. State and local police, including K-9 dogs, searched the campus and determined the threat was unfounded.

“We made the decision out of an abundance of caution,” said Superintendent Colleen Jermain about Wednesday’s evacuation. Parents were notified of the threat through robo-calls and email.

During the evacuation, a group of teachers, together with local and state law enforcement, gathered at the fire station across the street. Once it was determined to be another hoax, officers took teachers in small groups to retrieve their cars from the parking lot. School buses transported students off campus to nearby locations.

Despite the unfounded threats, the calls caused a significant disruption in the school week. At least 30 percent of students stayed home on Monday and Tuesday, well above the usual absentee rate of eight percent.

Rogers High School Principal Jeffrey Goss received the first threat on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

“The school department immediately implemented its protocols for such matters and worked very closely with the Newport Police Department through the night and day,” Jermain said in a prepared statement on Monday.

The second call came in to the Newport Police at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Newport Police Sgt. Corey Huck said community officers were placed at each school as a precaution.

On Wednesday, Rogers was cleared and reopened to staff at 1:30 p.m. “This threat, as with the other two, is still being investigated but is believed to be a hoax at this time and is similar in nature to the previous two made against the Newport School District,” police said. – Olga Enger

Thompson Middle School

Thompson Middle School on Broadway received no threat on Wednesday, Feb. 3. But that did not deter a parade of parents and child care providers from arriving there in late morning after hearing that Rogers High School had been evacuated.

“With social media, and parents texting their kids, it’s a domino effect and it creates chaos,” said interim Assistant Principal Michael Browner Jr.

Browner, a well-liked veteran social studies teacher before ascending to a management post at the school, stood behind a small desk at the front door and directed traffic as concerned parents began arriving to take their children home from school.

His navy blue suit and striped tie were as unruffled as he was.

“You need to sign this and list the children you are here to pick up,” Browner politely advised the wary adults as they approached the desk. A short distance away, Newport Police officer Jimmy Winters smiled at everyone as he politely pushed the heavy doors open for concerned parents.

“I know a lot of these people,” he explained.

Several people wondered whether the students would be let go prior to the normal 2:30 p.m. dismissal.

“It’s not that simple,” Browner told one parent. “There’s been no threat today to Thompson.”

Another woman waited patiently for her three children who attend Thompson. She said she had not picked them up before dismissal earlier in the week, but after three days of threats to schools in Newport, “I’m doing it today in an abundance of caution. After three days, you know, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

At the same time, Browner asked another parent if she wanted to take her child home.

“I’d rather leave my child here,” she replied, “but I wanted to talk with her because she seemed kind of freaked out.”

As the crowd around the small desk grew larger, Browner announced, firmly but politely, “Here’s what I need, people down here, please be quiet.”

He spotted a student who had been signed out heading up the imposing stairway leading upstairs from the front foyer. “Wait, wait, wait,” the assistant principal intoned. “You can’t go back up there. You’ve already been dismissed.”

Making the scene at Thompson seem even busier was the onset of lunchtime. By 12:30, the stream of concerned parents had not stopped, but it had slowed. Browner said he did not know how many students had been dismissed early, but the list had already run into three pages. – Tom Walsh

Pell Elementary School

For Newport Police Officer Mason Smith, the school resource officer at Claiborne Pell Elementary School on Dexter Street and the community policing officer for the city’s North End, Tuesday, Feb. 2 started abruptly.

Smith is charged with the day-to-day safety of pupils, staff and administrators at the Pell School, and a second morning threat that was called in spurred him to action to clear the school.

Late in the morning, Smith was maintaining an active post near the entrance of the school when he was approached by an inquisitive and nervous Pell student parent, Jasmine Tinker.

Tinker told Smith that she felt uneasy about the events of the past two days and was taking her daughter home early. Smith, sympathetic to Tinker’s concerns, explained, “We cleared the school room by room and checked everywhere possible to make sure that the school is safe for the children and the staff."

He added, “As a parent, I would feel the same way if my children’s schools were threatened. However we have a presence here which goes beyond me and there are other officers close by who can respond in moments.”

Smith, a 10-year veteran of the department’s Special Response Team and a special weapons expert, assured Tinker that the department trains extensively for occurrences like this and that school officials are highly trained to protect all the children in their care. “I hope you know that we put the safety of everyone in our schools across the city at the highest priority possible,” Smith said. –Jack Kelly

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