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Why Wake County schools isn't fining students for threats that lead to evacuations

What happens during a school lockdown?

A school lockdown is a precautionary measure issued in response to a direct or nearby threat. It requires staff and students to respond quickly and comply with rules. Here’s how it often works.
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A school lockdown is a precautionary measure issued in response to a direct or nearby threat. It requires staff and students to respond quickly and comply with rules. Here’s how it often works.

The Wake County school system has never used its power to fine students for making school threats — even as the number of threats is rising locally and across the nation.

After a spate of threats more than two years ago, Wake school leaders put on the books the ability to seek restitution from any students whose threats led to an evacuation. School officials say they haven't used that power for a variety of reasons, including how threats are now mainly coming from people outside the state and potentially outside the country.

“The trend lately, while these are still under investigation, it clearly looks as if these threats are not coming from students," said Russ Smith, the Wake school system's senior director of security.

School threats increased by more than 300 percent nationally in the month following the Feb. 14 mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., according to the Educator's School Safety Network. School threats have continued since then.

The Wake school system reported four school bomb threats to the state during the 2016-17 school year. Smith said the number will definitely be higher this school year.

Heritage lockdown
Heritage High School, Heritage Middle School and Heritage Elementary School were put on lockdown on March 20, 2018, because of a threat, according to Wake County schools. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Emailed bomb threats led to the evacuation last week of Fuquay-Varina High School and delayed openings this week at Holly Springs High School and two charter schools: Raleigh Charter High School and Southern Wake Academy.

The bomb threats are being received through email messages from within the town, the county, the state and the nation, according to a Facebook post Tuesday by the Fuquay-Varina Police Department.

"We have determined that the emails are a hoax," according to the Fuquay-Varina Police post. "We have been working with the schools within our jurisdiction and have reached out to state and federal authorities to assist in this ongoing investigation."

Raleigh Charter told its families that its email threat appeared to have originated from Moscow.

"We're not any closer to actually identifying any single person," Holly Springs Police Chief John Herring said Thursday. "It could be a group. It would take a pretty concerted effort by a group to do all this."

If a threat is determined to have come from a Wake student, the district has the power to make the person pay financially. It stems back to the district's 2016 response to receiving 22 threats to middle and high schools in October and November 2015, leading to four evacuations.

Under board policy, students may be required to pay a restitution fee to compensate for the disruption and cost of the school evacuation and any related emergency service response. The policy adds that the district will pass on to the student and his or her parents the cost of any fee or fine imposed on the school or district.

Smith said the district hasn't been billed by law enforcement for responding to these threats.

Herring, the Holly Springs police chief, said it's unlikely they'd bill the school district because it's their duty to respond to threats. But responding isn't cheap. He said responding to Monday's bomb threat at Holly Spring conservatively cost $3,500.

But Wake's policy does allow the district to fine students even if it isn't billed. In that situation, the policy says the superintendent may calculate a standard restitution fee "to reasonably compensate for the cost and disruption of a campus evacuation."

If a family can't pay the fee, the student could be asked to perform community service instead.

The fine policy was adopted over the objections of legal groups that work with students.

Brenda Berlin, supervising attorney for the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke University Law School, says she's glad no student has been fined by the district.

But Berlin said the district doesn't need to fine students because the courts can already seek restitution from students. She said that the school system also has fewer safeguards for students than the court system.

"The concerns I have about the policy remain the same," Berlin said. "There are significant consequences to the student and the family if they were to seek compensation."

The impact of having the restitution policy is unclear.

“I don’t know if you can judge whether it has an impact or not because it may have been a deterrent," said Smith, Wake's security director. "I think the policy is certainly a deterrent for someone."

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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