Students moved to nearby churches after TJ receives same call that cleared schools around the country Monday
Thomas Jefferson Middle School students and most staff members were evacuated Monday after the Port Washington school received a bomb threat — the same computer-generated hoax that forced school evacuations around the country and in Great Britain, authorities said.
A school secretary answered a call at 11:40 a.m. and reported that a computer-generated voice indicated there was a bomb in the school and children would be hurt, according to the Port Washington Police Department.
“There was an indication that students were targeted, so that certainly added to the seriousness of the threat,” Police Chief Kevin Hingiss said.
Five officers responded to the school and searched outside areas.
“We didn’t want kids walking into an ambush,” Principal Arlan Galarowicz said. “We had to make sure there weren’t people hiding in the trees and bushes waiting to hurt our students as they came out.”
Once officers determined the school grounds were safe, the school initiated an evacuation procedure it practiced in fall. Fifth and sixth-graders and their teachers walked about a block to St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, while seventh and eighth-graders and their teachers walked about three blocks to Christ the King Lutheran Church.
It was the first time the school, which has an enrollment of 775 students, was forced to evacuate because of a threat of violence, Galarowicz said.
“We practiced this in fall hoping we’d never have to use it,” he said. “You wish you wouldn’t have to worry about this sort of thing happening, but in this day and age, you have to be prepared. We were very prepared, and I’m extremely proud of our students and staff.”
Officers and custodians then conducted a room-to-room search of the school.
“Staff members accompany officers because they know the school and can recognize if something is out of place,” Hingiss said.
Students returned to the building at 1:15 p.m.
“This is the first time in my 42-year career that I had to do this,” Galarowicz said.
The school notified parents of the evacuation via email at about 2:10 p.m. Galarowicz said he received one complaint because parents weren’t notified as soon as the threat was received.
“When we first got the call, we really didn’t know what we were dealing with, and we didn’t want to panic kids or parents,” he said. “The last thing we needed was to have hundreds of parents trying get to school at the same time police were searching the building. We can handle making sure all our kids are safe, but I don’t think we could have handled that. It would have been a disaster.
“We sent out an email to parents as fast as we could put one together as soon as the kids were back in the building.”
Authorities reported that on Monday similar calls were made to schools elsewhere in Wisconsin and in Iowa, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont, as well as in Great Britain.
Experts call these hoaxes “swatting,” and say they are often sophisticated schemes that target schools and police departments and are difficult to track down.
“The really sad thing is that because this was an automated call, we could receive another one tomorrow and would have to do the same thing,” Galarowicz said. “It is kind of a sad comment on our society.”