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Expulsions result in fewer school bomb threats

TAMPA — On October 14, authorities evacuated Robinson High School after finding a message scrawled on a mirror in a girl's bathroom: "There is a bomb it will go off at 10:18. U will die!!!"

Fifteen-year-old Dannielle Hart hasn't been in school since.

Hillsborough school officials want her expelled for participating in a bomb threat, an offense considered as serious as taking a gun to school. Her mother is fighting the punishment. She acknowledges her daughter witnessed the threat, but says Dannielle didn't immediately tell authorities everything she knew because she feared retribution from the student responsible.

When it comes to bomb threats, excuses don't go far. Hillsborough schools have a zero-tolerance policy. And there is no denying its effectiveness.

In 2000-2001, a record 138 bomb threats were called into Hillsborough schools. This year: three.

"Unfortunately, we don't seem to be able to get anybody's attention unless we take very, very serious action," said School Board member Candy Olson. "That's absolutely a shame, but I look at all the kids."

The success of the hard-line approach is little comfort to Dannielle, whose education has been reduced to pecking away at an online Latin class from home. Almost every morning, she asks her mother when she can return to school.

"I'm dying," she said. "I miss my friends, and I'm not learning."

• • •

As a rule, the Hillsborough School Board wants to keep kids in school, not kick them out. But there are exceptions.

"There's nothing funny about claiming there's a bomb in a school that's going to go off," said Lewis Brinson, assistant superintendent for administration. "When you evacuate a school, you take the risk of kids being injured. All kinds of things happen when you're trying to get hundreds and thousands of kids out of school, and nobody knows if it's a false threat or not."

Before Hillsborough cracked down, students were not typically expelled for bomb threats, and if they were suspended, it was not for very long.

Brinson still has fresh memories of the months when bomb threats seemed to cut into class time almost every day. Students skipped classes during the frequent evacuations. Hundreds stayed home out of fear on the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.

Now Hillsborough's rule is more closely aligned with the toughest provisions in state law, which considers bomb threats a zero-tolerance offense punishable with expulsion for a year. Students can participate in nontraditional programs during that time, but it's considered a privilege.

Pinellas and Pasco take bomb threats seriously, too. Pinellas has suspended four to seven students in each of the last three school years for bomb threats. That's without facing the widespread problems that troubled Hillsborough several years ago.

Olson, the Hillsborough board member, said some cases are difficult. One of the first students expelled under the crackdown did not make the bomb threat, but loaned a friend a quarter to make the call. While sympathetic, she had to balance her greater concern that "something horrendous" could happen in an evacuation.

"It is harsh, but so is having your class disrupted as a joke," she said. "The idea was if you get expelled — no ifs, ands and buts — maybe this will be a serious enough consequence that your parents will take it seriously."

• • •

Only three girls really know what happened on a Tuesday morning last month in the restroom at Robinson High. The police report describes a prank noteworthy only because it led to the evacuation of more than 1,200 students.

Police say Dannielle did not initially tell them everything she knew. Eventually, she acknowledged that a classmate asked to use her marker. Dannielle saw her write the threat on the mirror.

A police report notes that Dannielle said she warned it was a bad idea as the three girls headed to the main office to report the threat. She "failed to relay this 'no' to the front office when they walked in," the report states.

Dannielle said she was scared. In middle school, a student bullied her and beat her up. Her problems with this child are ongoing, and she feared a repeat incident.

Her mother, Laurie Tiberio, faults the district for not contacting her right away. She said the district has not handled the investigation appropriately.

School officials declined to comment on the case, citing student confidentiality requirements.

School officials have requested a state hearing on the expulsion recommendation. Dannielle's mother said she has rejected a proposal from school officials to place her daughter in an alternative program in the meantime.

"Why is she being punished? She didn't do anything wrong," Tiberio said. "She is a witness to this. I'm not putting her in an alternative school for a day, an hour, nothing."

She also refused the district's offer place Dannielle in an alternative program until December, when officials were willing to evaluate placing Dannielle back with traditional students.

Tiberio said she is trying to get Dannielle enrolled in additional online classes, so her education can continue, but school officials have not helped make it happen.

Still, some might see a short expulsion from school as getting off easy.

The classmate who wrote on the mirror was arrested and charged with falsely reporting a bomb threat, a felony, and a misdemeanor count of disrupting a school function.

Hillsborough school officials believe that consequences like this are working. Their proof is in the numbers.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

BY THE NUMBERS

Bomb threats in Hillsborough County by school year, following a record 138 bomb threats in 2000-01. That number prompted school officials to stop accepting excuses and begin expelling participating students.

69 2003-04

60 2004-05

39 2005-06

22 2006-07

16 2007-08

3 2008-09

Expulsions result in fewer school bomb threats 11/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 1, 2008 1:37pm]
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