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Police secure schools as GMHS reacts to second threat

THREAT Officers checked everyone who entered the GMHS building on Thursday in reaction to a message written on a bathroom wall the night before. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
May 26, 2010
GORHAM — Things were not as they should have been at Gorham Middle High School on Thursday.

Police officers stood at every entrance, waving hand-held metal detectors over students and their bags. At first the kids were coming in one at a time and officers had time to talk to each of them, explain what they were doing. But by 7:30 a.m when the bus arrived the relaxed system had become regimented.

The line of students backed up outside the gym door as officers corralled them as they came through. They had the kids empty their pockets and their packs as the metal detector beeped. One kid would stand with their arms outstretched and their feet apart as an officer ran the detector down their front and back. Kids pulled out iPods, cell phones and soda cans and laid them on the floor. Some students had to go back into their backpacks three, four or five times. They were going through the procedure like they were experiencing it for the first time.

For most, however, it was actually their second time.

The police response was a reaction to a message a janitor found on a bathroom wall the day before.

"This hell must end May 20th it will die mother [expletive]"

The message was in pencil, without punctuation, darkened from repeated strokes.

The janitor contacted his supervisor, who took a photograph of the message and contacted Principal Keith Parent. Principal Parent called Superintendent Paul Bousquet, and then he called the police.

Principal Parent then initiated the school's robophone system, which called parents to inform them of what was going on.

The next morning he was in his office early, preparing to deal with the day ahead.

"Parents called all morning concerned," he said. "Some emailed as well."

And he couldn't blame them, he said. "Just that little bit of worry that something may happen concerns people a great deal."

He told parents they could keep their children home for the day if they wished. One-third took him up on the offer.

"We had 118 [students] here and roughly 60 out," he said. On a usual day six or seven students would be absent.

Middle school students had a field trip scheduled, so they were all away at a Fischer Cats game. And seniors had Senior Day, so they weren't in regular classes.

But for the rest of the high school it was much different than usual. Students had to get police escorts to walk the halls, and the police were still there when they left.

Police Chief PJ Cyr said police didn't believe the threat was credible but they weren't taking any chances. He pulled a patrol officer off the street and brought in an additional officer on overtime.

The sheriff's department also helped — Sheriff Gerald Marcou conducted crowd control duty as the buses arrived, managing the kids as they approached the officer with the metal detector.

The day went on without incident.

"We've had a lot of luck," Chief Cyr said. "It's been quiet."

The image, however, was jarring, even for Superintendent Bousquet.

"It's not funny," he said. "No one likes a police presence in our buildings."

But whether the threat is credible or not, he said, police have to be there. Even he had to go through the metal detector to get in, he said.

This is the second time in less than a month the school has had to respond to a threat. Last time a middle school student made the threat, and the administration knew almost immediately who was responsible for it.

This time its different. The police were still trying to find information at the end of the day Thursday, 24 hours after the message was first discovered.

Principal Parent held a meeting with teachers before school started where he passed around photos of the message, in case anyone recognized the handwriting.

He also told teachers they had the same choice students did: they could go home if they felt threatened. A few teachers accepted the offer.

But while some teachers and students stayed away, others were less concerned by the threat.

"I don't think people really took it seriously," said Kassie Moulton, a freshman from Shelburne.

Police went over her and her bag with the metal detector when she came to school in the morning, she said, but otherwise it wasn't that much different a day. She was a little worried, she said, but not terribly afraid.

Dillon Lowe, a freshman from Randolph, echoed Superintendent Bousquet's words.

"It's not funny," he said. "It's just not a good thing."

He said he didn't have any concerns when he came to school on Thursday. He was annoyed about with the disruption, he said, not scared.

"I feel safe around everyone here," he said. "We're pretty much all friends."

"I'm more concerned for the individual that did it," said Rachel Ross, a junior from Randolph. She worried the message was a cry for help, she said, and that the person who wrote it was more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else.

Superintendent Bousquet said the same thing. He was worried the threat was not directed at the school, he said, but at someone fed up with being bullied or some other challenge in their life.

"They need to know there is an outlet for them," he said.

For now, however, police and school administration are still looking for the person who did it. The perpetrator will face consequences when they find them, Superintendent Bousquet said. The student who did something similar several weeks ago was punished within the school, he said, but they also had to deal with the legal consequences and the cost to the town. Whoever did this will face a similar fate, he said.

The administration is hoping to deter students who might be tempted to do something similar in the future.

"If this happens again school's going to be canceled," Principal Parent said, and the days will be added on to the end of the year. For every time it happens seniors will lose a day of senior week, he said, to ensure they attend the requisite number of days for the year. And if it happen five more times, he said, graduation might have to get pushed back.

Superintendent Bousquet is looking at other ways it might be addressed.

"Cameras in the schools are not in the budget," he said, but they might be necessary to keep this type of thing from happening.

"I think our kids are too good for that," he said, but these recent incidents might necessitate it.

For now, however, if it happens again it will mean another day of officers, metal detectors, escorts and absences.

"Just like a normal school day, but a little slower," said Dillon Lowe.

"And a little quieter," said Mr. Parent.

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