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School threats force strong steps

US schools become laboratories for ways to halt deluge of bomb scares,

In North Carolina, lawmakers want to suspend for one year any student who makes a bomb threat - whether or not the individual is convicted.

In suburban Atlanta, a district is mandating see-through book bags as a way to guard against weapons being brought into the classroom.

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In Clayton, Mo., some local media outlets have agreed not to broadcast news of bomb threats in hopes of reducing copycat pranks.

One month after the tragedy in Littleton, Colo., communities are taking far-reaching steps to curb bomb plots and prevent violence.

Many schools are now hiring security consultants at $500 per day. Some districts are staggering class schedules so fewer students are in school at any given time. A few have simply shut down early for the summer.

Congress, too, is getting involved. As part of the massive juvenile-crime bill, some lawmakers want to prohibit bombmaking instructions from being posted on the Internet.

The dramatic actions stem from the continuing number of bomb plots and threats of violence that keep pouring into schools - sowing fear among students, disrupting classrooms, and costing vast sums in added law enforcement.

Indeed, authorities believe they have no choice but to take the threats seriously. This past weekend, for instance, Police Chief Peter Mazzeo of Emerson, N.J., a commuter town of split-levels homes and azalea bushes across the river from New York, was faced with an unusual crisis.

Two seventh-graders allegedly stole chemicals from a high school lab and planned to make a bomb. After arresting the youths, Chief Mazzeo faced a dilemma: Should he charge them as adults or juveniles?

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As it turned out, because of their age, the kids (12 to 13 years old) were charged as juveniles.

Last week, police in Port Huron, Mich., were also stunned when they arrested four children for allegedly planning a mass killing designed to top the body count in Littleton. A pair of 14-year-olds were charged as adults and held on $100,000 bail. They face possibile life in prison.

Charging kids as adults is a tough call for authorities. Gary Walker, the prosecutor in Marquette County, Mich., says he draws the line when youths go beyond a verbal threat to an overt one, such as saying they will kill 15 students in an auditorium.

Tough new laws

Yet some states are considering changing their laws in a way that will impact students. In North Carolina, there is proposed legislation to double the amount of community service, parental supervision, or prison time for making a bomb threat.

School superintendents would be given discretion to suspend a student for a full year. And parents would be held civilly liable "if they knew or should have known" of a threat and made no reasonable effort to prevent the threat.

"We felt that something had to be done to give these people a sense of the gravity of these acts," says state Sen. Walter Dalton (D), a sponsor of the legislation. "They must know the weight of the sledgehammer will come down if they do these things."

Experts believe this is the only way to stop the epidemic of calls. "This is a form of terrorism, and we have to recognize it as such," says Peter Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools in College Park, Md.

Yet critics worry that society may now be going too far in its crackdown - trampling the rights of teenagers. For example, Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington, believes the proposed federal legislation fundamentally changes the nature of children's rights.

"It's a real death knell to the juvenile court," he says.

Mr. Schiraldi argues it's not a simple matter of right or wrong - after all, these are kids. Adolescents often make jokes even when they shouldn't.

Two weeks ago, he says, a child was arrested in Maryland on a day when 36 percent of the students stayed home because of bomb threats.

"He said he didn't say he was going to throw a bomb at the school, but a burrito," says Schiraldi. "Now you can't joke about bombs in schools or airports."

Others argue it's impossible to legislate adolescent behavior. "We have to understand that adolescents are very vulnerable, very impressionable," says Elaine Blechman, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She believes communities need to go beyond blaming individuals and look at deeper societal problems.

She notes that a consortium of citizens in Boulder is hoping to link social systems for troubled youth. It would tie together schools, police, and mental-health services.

Let's look in those book bags

Still, many schools feel they need to do something more concrete to deal with the bomb threats. In Coweta County, Ga., just south of Atlanta, 16,000 students will have to buy clear vinyl or mesh book bags next fall.

On average, authorities confiscate three handguns a year from students. "We're not so naive as to think this will solve the problem," says John Boren, director of support services for the county school system. "We're just not going to make it easy for them."

Educators worry that the post-Littleton effect is changing the way they deal with troubled children in particular.

In Emerson, N.J., the school system has adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for any bomb-related behavior. Thus, when the two teenagers allegedly stole the chemicals to make an explosive, the superintendent went right to police.

"I think one of the most sad things that has happened as a result of Littleton is that we don't have the opportunity to reach out and save kids who can be saved," says Charles Montesano, the school superintendent.

*Harry Bruinius contributed to this story.

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