04/20/2007

Utah school evacuated after bomb threat

By Laura Hancock and Sara Israelsen
Deseret Morning News
 
PROVO, Utah — Just two days after the bloodshed at Virginia Tech, at least one person called Provo High School with a bomb threat, resulting in the evacuation of some 1,700 students Wednesday.

Police never found a device, and no one was injured -- although hundreds of students huddled and shivered in the icy rain on the school's football field for nearly 45 minutes.

"It would appear to be a prank," Provo Police Sgt. George Besendorfer said. "The time frame (of the threat of a bomb going off) has already passed."

Students streamed out of the building just after 1 p.m., after a 10-minute lockdown and sweep of the building by authorities. Administrators emphasized it was not a drill and to move quickly.

The students were herded onto the football field where they huddled together under thin jackets or a rare umbrella, trying to stay warm despite an icy rain.

Students used cell phones to call parents to let them know what was going on and that they were OK, despite the lockdown.

Allison O'Neill was one of the first parents on scene after she got a call from her daughter, Anu.

"It was panic, instantly," O'Neill said. "(I told her) I'm gonna be there. I'm not going to sit at home and wait to see what's going on."

The district discourages parents from coming to campus, which can make evacuations or safety precautions more difficult for the authorities.

Typically with bomb threats in the Provo School District, authorities search the school with students locked in classrooms.

Evacuation is rare but was necessary at Provo High, in part for the psychological well-being of students and staff after the events in Virginia, said Greg Hudnall, the district's student services director.

On Monday, a gunman shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute before killing himself. Most of the victims were students.

"There's no doubt we went beyond normal because of that," Hudnall said.

Police and the school officials were tight-lipped about details of the bomb threat, except that a call was received at 12:44 p.m.

Without using the words "bomb," school administration announced on the intercom system that classrooms were to be locked. In some classrooms, learning continued as usual. In other classrooms, students began chattering nervously.

"You hope that everything's going to be OK, and it most likely will be, but there's still that underlying fear that something really bad is going to happen," said freshman Adam Keith. He said some students were quite frightened, even to the point of nearly fainting, while others remained cool and collected, as he did.

School administrators, police and teachers with prep periods swept through the school looking for anything unusual, Hudnall said.

They searched a couple of gym bags, but found nothing out of the ordinary, said Besendorfer, who supervises Provo's school resource officers.

At one point, a group of students were transferred from one part of the school to another, "because of some concerns that were brought to us by law enforcement," Hudnall said, declining to elaborate because the investigation is ongoing.

Then principal Sam Ray announced on the intercom that students needed to evacuate in an orderly fashion.

"Our procedure is not to evacuate the school, (but) because of additional information that we are not allowed to disclose at this time" the school was evacuated to the football field, Hudnall said,

Just before 2 p.m., students were let off the field and told to leave in their cars or head to a parking lot across the street shared by Zions Bank and Brigham Young University to be bused home.

Buses took students home about 20-30 minutes before the normal 2:28 p.m. dismissal time, Hudnall said.

Other wet, bedraggled students hurried to cars, piling in friends who didn't have immediate rides.

"It's a little scary, especially after Monday," said student Jordan Stowe as he walked with fellow freshman Cody Allman to a car. "It's a whole new level of fear."

Other students shivered under trees in T-shirts, waiting with dripping hair for their parents to come pick them up. The rain was interspersed with bursts of hail and snow.

Freshman Adam Keith called his mom using a friend's cell phone and she arrived around 2:30 p.m. to pick him up.

"My first thought was, is this just another ... prank, a copycat from Monday?" she said. "(But then I thought) is he really in danger? You have to weigh those as a mother, it's difficult."

About 25-30 officers from the Provo Police Department, Utah County Sheriff's Office, Utah County Bomb Squad and its bomb-sniffing dogs, the state Adult Probation and Parole, and the U.S. Marshals Service, who happened to be in Provo at the time, were on scene.

From start to finish, the incident lasted about 45 minutes.

In January, teachers, principals and district officials met with local law enforcement for an annual safety drill.

Hudnall said that Wednesday's incident was a drill of sorts, too, and the faculty and staff did a good job following the policy of relinquishing security to police.

Copyright 2007 The Deseret News Publishing Co.

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