Schools seek culprits behind threats at Wellington-area schools

Updated Jan 19, 2016

Authorities scoured Emerald Cove Middle school Tuesday morning after someone dialed in a bomb threat. The call came in to the school before 10 a.m. and was declared a hoax by school police before lunch. Police also investigated and discredited a written threat of a school shooting at Palm Beach Central High Tuesday morning.

That was the third bomb threat to a Wellington area school in eight days. And, by the school police chief’s count, the two incidents were the latest in about a dozen hoaxes or threats of violence called into county schools this year – a “huge increase” over years past.

By afternoon, Chief Lawrence Leon made a call of his own: These aren’t merely pranks; they are crimes that the district is intent on solving and prosecuting. Students could be expelled or even charged with a felony.

Helping police solve the crimes with a tip to Student Crime Stoppers could pay up to $1,000.

Leon speculated that so many calls targeting Wellington schools could suggest they are related. He noted that some of the bomb threats were placed with the help of a phone app, disguising the caller’s voice as well as the caller ID, Leon said.

The local calls appear to be unrelated to the rash of bomb threats made against more than 30 schools in the Northeast and Midwest Tuesday, which forced evacuations and lockdowns for thousands of students in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware and Iowa.

Reuters news service reported that those threats, made in a robotic voice, appeared to be coming from computer-generated numbers that were traced back to California.

Palm Beach County schools have yet to be on the receiving end of such “robo-call” threats, district officials said.

The number of bomb threats called into county schools last year was not immediately available. But this year, the string appeared to begin in October with a threat called into Palm Beach Central High School on Forest Hill Boulevard west of Florida’s Turnpike. The threat forced the evacuation of the campus of nearly 3,000 students.

December saw two written threats, one a shooting threat found on a bathroom wall at Park Vista High, west of Boynton Beach. The other, saying Polo Park Middle, another Wellington school, would be bombed on Jan. 2, 2016. Both were investigated and found to be “unsubstantiated,” district officials report. Another written threat surfaced in a Park Vista bathroom in January. It, too, was discredited.

Last week, Wellington High’s classrooms were evacuated after a bomb threat on Tuesday. Friday, while students were hunkered down during a tornado warning another bomb threat was called in.

The rumors about the threats can move more quickly and be just as anxiety driving as the threats themselves, as was the case of the scrawled bathroom wall threat at Park Vista. Within a week of that incident, Superintendent Robert Avossa directed principals to alert parents whenever a campus threat is uncovered even if the police have deemed the threat not credible.