By Brenda Flanagan
What did the notes say? “There’s a bomb in this building — find it.”
Passaic Mayor Alex Blanco calls it an epidemic — five bomb threats in February at Passaic High School. Each time, police evacuated the buildings, kids stood around in the street.
Blanco says the first threat came in a phone call but that staff found subsequent threats scribbled and scrawled in high school bathrooms.
“Students were taking advantage of the privacy of the bathrooms to write notes, either on the wall or leave it on the floor,” he said.
So educators started monitoring bathrooms, requiring students to sign in. Complaints hit Facebook, where one unhappy student claimed, “It specially makes me feel uncomfortable when I’m locked inside the bathroom. All I really need is just a couple of minutes to myself to do my business, but because of a single student I loose [sic] that privilege.” But the final straw — the final bomb threat — happened on a cold, rainy day.
“So the kids were outside, getting wet — I’m pretty sure a lot of them got sick from it — and they said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to tolerate this any more.’ So whenever they hear something, they report it to the administration,” Blanco said.
He says a tip led to an arrest — one high school student, part of what the mayor calls a “mini-conspiracy” that also allegedly had planned to make similar threats at Lincoln Middle School.
“This was going to be a serious situation. This is a copycat epidemic, a little system they were going to create,” Blanco said.
In 2015, New Jersey’s Department of Homeland Security logged more than 200 threats — primarily at schools, malls, retail establishments and hospitals. It’s a crime called, “swatting” — anonymous phone calls to elicit police response.
“Here in New Jersey alone we had 26 schools in one day that received telephonic threats. So, this problem definitely is not going away,” said Paige Schilling an intelligence analyst at the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
“Yeah we definitely are and I think social media may play a part in that, as you know, it’s avalible to pretty much all of the students everyobody today has a cell phone. What’s happening ,not only on these bomb calls but swatting incidences as well, is that these threats are displayed on social media,” said Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik, he also said that it leads to copycating.
New Jersey’s new anti-swatting law took effect this week. Those convicted face up to 10 years in prison and must pay for law enforcement costs for each swatting response.
“It’s costing the school, the taxpayers over $20,000 per incident, and the education time children are losing,” Blanco said.
In Passaic, the mayor says, staff will continue to monitor the high school bathrooms, and the investigation into the so-called “bomb threat conspiracy” remains ongoing.