BY LESLIE BRIDGERS
Portland Press Herald
After a couple of days of rumors, public warnings and plans for heightened security, state and local police determined Thursday that there was no message threatening schools in southern Maine.
“We’ve chased baseless rumors throughout the past 24 hours and found no credible threat directed at any Maine school,” Col. Robert Williams, chief of Maine State Police, said in a prepared statement Thursday afternoon.
The rumors, which authorities say stemmed from talk among high school students and a letter sent by a York school administrator, led police to ramp up their presence on school campuses and parents to consider keeping their children home this week.
Although police found no threat was made, the talk unnerved some parents, and several districts said Thursday they will still have more police officers than usual at their schools as a precaution on Friday — one week since 26 teachers and students were killed by a gunman at a Connecticut elementary school. The gunman also killed his mother before the school shooting.
Some officials are attributing the rumors and their wide circulation to heightened anxiety as a result of last week’s shootings, as well as predictions based on the Mayan calendar about the world ending on Friday.
Gorham Superintendent Ted Sharp wrote in a letter to parents Thursday that the two events “presented a perfect storm for emotions and euphoria to transcend what, in less stressful circumstances, would have been guided by more reasoned judgment.”
Gorham police began investigating the rumors Tuesday, after learning that students were saying “that a text message had surfaced threatening violence against students at the Gorham High School on Friday,” Chief Ron Shepard said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.
He said Gorham police were joined by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, Westbrook police and Windham police, as well as school officials from other towns that were “experiencing disruptions and confusion regarding the alleged text messages.”
At the same time, Shepard said, a York school administrator sent a letter to other districts asking if they had heard rumors in their schools about something bad happening on Friday in relation to the end of the world prediction.
Shepard said he didn’t know the name of the York official.
Debra Dunn, superintendent of York schools, said in an email Thursday evening that she is aware of “an inquiry sent to a colleague in the Windham Schools as to whether their students were also reporting rumors pursuant to Friday’s end of the world/Mayan calendar issue,” but she wouldn’t say who sent it.
“It was really one of those things that started with a question that turned into a rumor and here we are,” Williams, of the state police, said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.
He likened the incident to a game of telephone, where a message keeps changing as it’s passed along. Williams said police usually hear about rumors when they start going around, but not this time.
“It had been spread so widely throughout York and Cumberland counties, we couldn’t get it stopped immediately,” he said. “This one just got way out ahead of police before we got involved.”
Sharp, the Gorham superintendent, sent a letter to school officials in southern Maine on Wednesday afternoon, alerting them to the rumor of a Facebook message threatening harm to schools on Friday and that it “suggests any and all schools in York County and Cumberland County could be a target.”
He later posted a letter on the Gorham School Department’s website about the rumored Facebook message and the district’s plan to have more police officers at schools for the rest of the week.
Several districts followed Sharp with their own letters to parents on Wednesday and Thursday about the potential threat.
Despite the outcome of the investigation, Shepard said Thursday the plan to have more officers at Gorham schools will stay in place, “just because.” Officials from other districts, including Westbrook, Portland, Kennebunk and Cumberland, have said they also will stick with their plans to have an increased police presence.
Kenneth Trump, president of Ohio-based consultant National School Safety and Security Services, said that a threat made after a school safety incident, like the one in Connecticut, “is an unfortunate common phenomenon.”
He said he’s heard of “a good number” of threats made throughout the county since Friday and wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds had been made.
Part of the reason behind it, he said, is that there’s a “heightened awareness by people to report threats that they hear and see,” and those threats are taken seriously.
He said most of them will turn out to be unfounded and are usually the result of poor decision-making by young people who want attention or think they’re making an off-handed comment and don’t understand the consequences.
But sometimes, he said, an incident like the Connecticut school shooting puts someone with mental health problems “over the top.”
Facebook posts from parents in southern Maine on Thursday showed their levels of fear about the rumored message varied.
Before police said there was no threat, some parents posted that they were confident it was a hoax. Others said they would pull their kids out of school for the rest of the week.
Liana Richardson, a senior at Gorham High School, said her mother isn’t letting her go to school on Friday, even though police don’t believe there’s a threat.
“Not worth the risk, I guess,” she said.
Spencer LaPierre, another Gorham senior, said students and teachers don’t seem too concerned about anything happening at the school.
“I’m pretty sure parents are more worried,” he said.
Trump said parents should not be scared to send their kids to school.
“The reality is the days ahead are going to be the safest days in American schools because of the heightened attention” to security, he said.