Although federal guidelines for handling bomb threats in schools recommend that local media be involved in planning how information is released, reporters learned about a bomb threat only by hearing rumors from parents who had received a letter from the district.
Sheriff Rob Craft was notified but didn’t include information about the threat on the activity log that state law requires him to make available for inspection by the press and public.
“I’m not going to dictate to them who they notify,” Craft said. “It wasn’t my place; it wasn’t my case.”
Peabody Police Chief Bruce Burke defended his decision not to inform the public or the media.
“To my knowledge, we do not include the media during an active investigation,” Burke said. “I believe that the gas company, fire department, and the people living in the houses adjacent to the school property were made aware of the situation.”
Peabody Fire Chief Mark Penner said he didn’t receive any notification other than the letter to parents of students. He said he could have arranged for extra hands on duty if he had been kept up to speed on the situation.
“We are pretty short-handed during the day now, because so many of our firefighters also work out of town,” Penner said. “Anytime we have advance notice about something happening, it is always helpful.”
A spokesman for Atmos Energy denied being informed.
“The short answer is, no, we were not contacted about the bomb threat,” said Jim Bartling, public relations officer for the gas company.
However, in all fairness, he said, notification really wouldn’t have made much difference.
Terry Eberhard, president of the Peabody-Burns school board, said he was unsure who had been notified.
“I didn’t ask, and no one volunteered that information,” he said.
Unlike Chief Burke, Superintendent Ron Traxson had had second thoughts about whether the public should have been notified.
“In retrospect, I think we should have issued a statement when we sent letters to the parents,” he said. “First, we wanted to find the responsible student without advertising the situation.
“We were trying to assist law enforcement with a criminal investigation, assess the threat, and inform parents and staff. And then toss four snow days into the mix, we were more focused on what was going on internally.”
Not only were the media and public kept in the dark. Marion County commissioners were not informed.
“We have no knowledge about it except what we hear on the street,” Commission Chairman Randy Dallke said.
Dallke said the commissioners have long hoped for better communication about situations like this.
“It is not that we need to know names or all the details of an investigation. It is just that we would like to be informed when something like this happens on our watch,” he said. “We don’t need to be called first, but we would appreciate not finding out last.”
Ken Willard, the state board of education member whose district includes Marion County, also was not notified.
“It would seem to me that there is some responsibility on the part of the school to inform the general public about incidents like the one you described,” Willard said. “It would be interesting to know why the school and law enforcement officials deemed it appropriate to withhold the information from the public.”
Burke, Craft, and Eberhard all declined to comment on persistent rumors that the suspended student suspected of writing the threatening graffiti had a connection to school or law enforcement personnel.
Requests to review the official criminal incident report, portions of which are required by state law to be made available publicly, were denied.
Although Craft had said it was “not my case,” Burke referred reporters to Craft. After consulting with County Attorney Susan Robson, Craft declined to release anything on grounds that it was an ongoing investigation and involved a juvenile.
To avoid rewarding pranks with undue publicity, this newspaper’s longstanding policy calls for reporting threats of this nature only when they result in noticeable disruption of public routines.