AUGUSTA — Cony High School students will begin a new school year on Wednesday just a few months after a series of bomb threats in the waning days of last year disrupted classes and unnerved parents.

Police and school officials, while reluctant to discuss specific changes that have been put in place to respond to similar threats and even help prevent them, say every threat is taken as an opportunity to improve. Part of that improvement, the local prosecutor says, will require the help of lawmakers to stiffen the potential penalty for those convicted of making the threats.

“It will be aggressively prosecuted,” said Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney. “This is a serious threat. It’s affecting the eduction of a large number of students. I will make this a priority if we have a case against someone.”

Making that case has thus far proven elusive. Lt. Christopher Massey of the Augusta Police Department said investigations into all of the bomb threats, which occurred on June 2, 8 and 9, remain open and are being actively investigated. There have been no charges brought in connection with any of the threats.

Two of the threats were conveyed in bathroom stalls in both boys and girls bathrooms, Massey said at a public forum held in June to discuss the threats. A third threat, which mentioned a bomb and a shooter, was found written on a note. Police are unsure if the threats are connected, though Massey said at the forum that his “guess is they probably know each other.”

The school responded to the threats with a few changes noticeable to students, staff and the public. Teachers were asked to sign students out of classrooms, and the school increased supervision of public areas and implemented routine bathroom inspections.

Massey said recently that there may be other changes, invisible to students and the public, that the school and police will undertake moving forward, but he said revealing those changes publicly would mitigate their effectiveness. He said any kind of incident that jeopardizes school safety sparks a protocol review by police, firefighters and school officials.

“We always evaluate it to see if it needs to be modified or changed,” Massey said. “You’re always looking at what you have for policies and procedures and making sure they’re up to date. Part of the safety protocol would be keeping those kinds of measures confidential.”

Augusta Schools Superintendent James Anastasio, like Massey, declined to identify specific changes made in response to the June threats, but said the safety protocol reviews were not limited to the immediate aftermath of those threats. School, police and fire officials regularly return to review safety procedures to look for ways to improve.

“We’re constantly looking at what is relevant and what is new and always trying to meet that standard,” Anastasio said. “The No. 1 concern for parents and educators is the safety of everyone who uses the building. We take the idea of safety very seriously.”

LAW CHANGE?

Maloney, the Kennebec County prosecutor, said significant consequences for those who make bomb threats are a key to deterring future threats, but she said the current state law can put that goal out of reach. Bomb threat suspects are charged under terrorizing statutes. Threats that lead to an evacuation rise to the level of a class C felony, which not only carries a potential penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, but also brings with it other longer-lasting effects, such as the prohibition against ever owning a firearm or preclusion from certain careers.

“That’s an appropriate response to a crime that causes a magnitude of disruption that the bomb threat causes,” Maloney said.

But according to state law, if the building is not evacuated, the maximum penalty is a Class D misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine with no accompanying long-term consequences.

“That’s the piece we need to fix,” Maloney said. “The terrorizing statute is not perfect.”

If a school fails to evacuate, then the person who made the threat is automatically facing a more lenient penalty. That was key in the third Cony threat in June when the school was not evacuated because the threat included a claim of a shooter. In that case the person making the threat would face less jail time, in essence, for making a more serious threat.

“The difference in the way a misdemeanor and a felony are treated is dramatic,” Maloney said.

She is working with Augusta police to draft legislation to change the terrorizing statute to allow suspects to be charged with a felony even when the school is not evacuated. Maloney said she is hoping the legislation, which she said would be introduced by state Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, will be passed in the next session to “give police more tools.”

The laws have a different application when the suspect is a juvenile.

“But it still would be helpful to be able to charge the felony so the case can be treated as seriously as the harm that is caused,” she said.

When prosecutors are dealing with an adult suspect, they consider the potential punishment as well as rehabilitation and deterrents when deciding how to move forward with prosecution. Punishment is not a consideration if the suspect is a juvenile, Maloney said, but prosecutors still consider rehabilitation and deterrents.

“The juvenile system does still have a juvenile detention center, and we can argue to the court that the only way to deter future events is to take a hard-line approach in order to send a strong message to others,” Maloney said. “I would see deterrent as a significant factor.”

‘NOT A JOKE’

Michael Dorn, executive director of the Georgia-based Safe Haven International, a school safety training center that has worked with thousands of schools and agencies around the world, including Maine, said preventing bomb threats, and even investigating them, is difficult, but police and schools are not powerless to react. The key, Dorn said, is having a multifaceted approach to responding to threats and aggressively prosecuting those responsible for making them.

“The bomb threat can be a tool of a bomber,” Dorn said. “It’s more typically a tool of someone who just wants to frighten people.”

While Dorn works with clients who have not experienced a bomb threat in decades, most schools experience them at least periodically. Schools that have not had a threat in years will often see multiple threats after one occurs. Threats also can follow major events, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

“Most of our clients have at least periodic threats,” Dorn said. “It varies a bit from community to community, but it also varies with time.”

How schools and law enforcement respond to those threats is key to not only preserving the students’ safety, but deterring future threats. The priority, Dorn said, is creating uncertainty for the person making the threats.

“They should have options,” Dorn said. “We feel, and a number of other agencies feel, it’s dangerous to automatically evacuate.”

Cony students were evacuated after the first two threats in June, but were kept inside and the school locked down after the third, leaving some parents confused about the different responses.

Heather Hinkley of Augusta, who will have both a seventh and a ninth grader at Cony this year, said on Monday that her concerns about bomb threats were allayed following talks with Cony principal Kim Silsby. At one point near the end of the last school year, she kept her Cony student at home following a bomb threat.

“It does upset some of the kids and it’s very disrupting,” she said. “My son loves going to school.”

She also said she was in favor of tougher penalties for those making the bomb threats.

“It’s not funny,” she said.

Hinkley, who graduated from Cony in 1999, said she experienced only one during her years there and thought nothing of it.

There are myriad reasons people will make a threat, Dorn said. He recalled one case that involved a student hoping to avoid getting dressed for a physical education class. Sometimes threats are spawned by a desire to get out of a test. Most often, Dorn said, the person simply enjoys frightening people or has a grudge against someone at the school.

Whatever the reason, Dorn said part of the key to preventing future threats is aggressively prosecuting those who make them. While juvenile offenders can only be identified when they are charged with felonies and then only with the permission of the courts, Dorn urges police, prosecutors and school officials to publicize arrests with as much information as possible. That information should at least include the charges, potential incarceration and a promise to go after the suspect to repay any costs associated with responding to the threat. Dorn said the approach has proven effective.

“When we caught somebody, we’d let the world know about it,” Dorn said. “We made it clear this is not just a joke. If you do this and we catch you, there will be significant consequences.”

Staff writer Betty Adams contributed to this report.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: CraigCrosby4

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