Third Fifth Bomb Threat in 4 Days Evacuates MHS & Hommocks

Wednesday Night Meeting With Parents Outlines New Procedures

by Judy Silberstein, with additional reporting by Oliver Paré & Melany Gray

Members of the Westchester County bomb squad prepare to search Mamaroneck High School.

(Updated March 6; original publication March 5, 2008) Despite increased security measures in response to three previous bomb threats, a new threat was found written on a wall at Mamaroneck High School on Thursday, March 6, forcing an evacuation at around 2:35 pm. In addition, a similar threat was found around the same time at the Hommocks Middle School. Students at both schools were released from classes and, given the late hour, not required to return.

Mamaroneck Town Detective Lt. Gerry McCarthy said "we're not fully convinced, at this time, that there is a correlation between the MHS and Hommocks cases, but we are collaborating with the Village of Mamaroneck on this." The Hommocks message was found in a boy's bathroom.

Anonymous Tip Line: 381-6103

Anyone with relevant information is being asked to call the Mamaroneck Town Police alcohol tip line.

Both schools were cleared by the Westchester County bomb squad. However, Thursday evening's production of the Winter's Tale by the Semi-Royal Shakespeare was canceled. After some scrambling, it was possible to re-schedule the show for Monday, March 10 at 7:30.

According to a message from Superintendent Paul Fried, "We expect school to resume tomorrow with additional security measures, including a police presence." The schools will be working with police from both Mamaroneck Village (where the high school resides) and Mamaroneck Town (responsible for the Hommocks).

At around 6:30 pm, the MHS PTA began soliciting parent volunteers to help with security for Friday's opening of school. Students would enter only through two doors, but there would be no backpacks let in. Students would be allowed to exit elsewhere, but pairs of parents would be stationed at doors to be sure doors were not propped open. The Hommocks PTA is also recruiting volunteers to help with security at that school.

The district has been using its automated phone messaging system to contact parents and students with the latest updates.

Threats 1, 2 & 3

The first calls came early Monday morning, when school was cancelled at MHS after high school custodian Robert Ludwiczak found a bomb threat scrawled on a wall of the Post Road building.(See: Graffiti Threat Closes Mamaroneck High School.) On Tuesday, after-school activities were called off in response to a second message.

The Mamaroneck School Board held its Tuesday evening study session on the superintendent’s preliminary budget, once the bomb squad swept the buildings and declared them safe. Among the new budget items proposed was $60K to begin installing security cameras at the high school. (See: Prelim School Budget Would Hike Taxes 9.9%; Cuts To Come.)

On Wednesday, sometime after 9 am, the same custodian found a threatening message on another wall on the Post Road side of the high school. Officials opted to keep school in session, but to evacuate the buildings and have students take an early lunch with orders to return at noon. Meanwhile, a bomb squad with three bomb sniffing dogs searched the entire campus.

MHS was evacuated on Wednesday, March 5 in response to threatening graffiti scrawled on a wall.

In a statement emailed to the press at 11:15 am on Wednesday, Superintendent Paul Fried indicated, “While we think this is a prank, we need to take every precaution to ensure the safety of everyone.”

Authorities are not releasing details, but Lt. James Gaffney, spokesperson for the Mamaroneck Village police, did characterize the messages as a “terrorist threat,” and other officials said the messages alluded to a bomb in the building.

Though the rains had ended earlier in the day on Wednesday, a bone-chilling wind made it extremely unpleasant for those waiting to re-enter the building. Students huddled near the bleachers of the football field, where they had been told to report, although others sat in cars or snuck away to warmer venues.

At noon, students returned from lunch and made their way to the football field to wait for classes to resume.

“This is a learning experience – the students need to learn about the seriousness of the situation,” said Lt. Gaffney. “This is a felony – making a terrorist threat. There is a criminal investigation and Dr. Fried has said he will prosecute."

MHS Principal Dr. Mark Orfinger was on the sidewalk directing students to the football field on Wednesday. “We’re very distressed that we had to deal with these messages three days in a row,” he said. “It’s disrupting the educational process and causing people to be extremely nervous and concerned for their safety.“

"I wasn't too scared because I figured it was a harmless prank," said MHS junior James Hosey. "But things were pretty chaotic and the school was right to evacuate the students."

James Reddicliffe, a junior class Student Council representative, expressed concern. "It's a serious problem anytime a public service like the fire department or bomb squad is needlessly taken away from potentially serious problems."

But Alex Reynolds, a sophomore, thought it was "ridiculous" that the school and police have been "unable to ascertain the perpetrator."

Dr. Orfinger said, “We hope to find the individual who did this so we’re not held hostage to this kind of threat.”

By around 1 pm, the buildings were cleared and those students who were still around were allowed back in the building.

Wednesday Night Meeting With Parents

At a Wednesday night meeting, previously scheduled to discuss communication, Dr. Fried and Dr. Ofinger reiterated the chronology of events since Monday to the sixty or so assembled parents. Preliminary investigation suggests that all three threats were written by the same person. None was directed specifically against any individual, and they were characterized by school and law enforcement officials as likely a “prank.”

Although bomb threats are largely “uncharted territory” for Mamaroneck, they noted, the district is working closely with the county special services unit, which has expertise with similar threats in other school districts.

Dr. Orfinger described the heightened security procedures that would be in place starting Thursday morning. Doors at the high school would remain locked until 7:15 am, and students would be admitted through one of two doors, with backpacks subject to search. There would be an in increased adult presence, including additional short-term security personnel and teachers assigned to hall duty throughout the building on an emergency basis. Dr. Orfinger praised the faculty for its cooperation.

In addition, Dr. Orfinger said he would be addressing the students Thursday morning, after which teachers would spend some class time discussing the seriousness of the situation. Students were to be encouraged to meet with guidance counselors or teachers to discuss individual concerns.

Dr. Fried is looking into installation of some security cameras this year. He cautioned that this couldn’t happen overnight, however, because the district must follow competitive bidding procedures.

Parents were generally appreciative of steps taken to safeguard their children, but many were frustrated that the exact wording of the threats could not be released due to the ongoing police investigation. One parent, Cindy Habig, expressed appreciation that the district was open to parental input and to improving procedures for handling evacuations in the future, should they become necessary. In her opinion, school officials were committed to providing “as much information and normalcy as possible,” while keeping students safe and assisting in the investigation.

“We came to the meeting to talk about communication,” Ms. Habig noted, “and we actually communicated.”

Oliver Paré is a junior at Mamaroneck High School. Melany Gray is co-president of the MHS PTA.