Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Bomb threat a dilemma for schools, a felony for caller

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LENOX — It's impossible to second-guess a decision under pressure by law enforcement officials and school administrators on whether to take seriously a telephoned bomb threat, with resulting disruption that's especially stressful for younger students.

That was the dilemma caused when a threatening call was received by the Pittsfield Police Department's 911 dispatch center just before 2 p.m. Thursday.

It resulted in an early dismissal and 90-minute shutdown of after-class activities at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School. Other schools in Pittsfield, Dalton, Cheshire and Lanesborough chose normal dismissal since classes were about to end for the day.

There's no right answer. As a Lenox teacher remarked on the way into school on Friday morning, such threats became nearly routine during the 1970s and before long were treated as wolf-cry hoaxes perpetrated by evil-minded pranksters seeking to sow disruption.

But as this faculty member pointed out, who among us would want to take any chances on the precious lives of our young people? Given the crazed gun culture that has infected disturbed individuals and terrorist sympathizers that has taken too many lives in recent years, erring on the side of caution is the reaction many of us would advocate.

On the other hand, the question must be asked: At what point should we deny malevolent hoaxsters from wielding the power to close schools or other public facilities? With a 12-year-old child attending the local public school down the road, I'm as conflicted as I imagine school officials are these days.

By my observation, the older students leaving Lenox Memorial 20 minutes earlier than usual on Thursday seemed to be taking the situation in stride. For younger middle schoolers, however, there was palpable anxiety.

The 400-plus students and scores of faculty and staffers were out of the building quickly and calmly. As schools Superintendent Timothy Lee put it later in the day as he commended one and all, including Terri Gardino, district manager at the Dufour Bus Co. for quickly providing extra buses: "If we had to do it, I think we did it well."

"But it's worrisome," he said. "I'm almost sorry to say that I think the students at Lenox Memorial are getting pretty good at evacuating the building. Everyone got out of there quick, there was no pushing or shoving. For the most part students were calm, though I noticed the sixth-graders, the youngest in the school, seemed to be a little bit more alarmed than the other students who might have gone through this before."

Lee described the experience as "incredibly disruptive." A quick decision, in consultation with local police, was required because "the bomb threat stated we needed to act within the next 30 minutes. We caucused for a minute and decided we better get everybody evacuated."

Principal Michael Knybel praised all involved "for such a caring, calm response to a disruptive situation. I am proud to be part of this incredible community."

Any potential copycats out there should be aware that technology can trace hoax phone calls and the penalties for a felony threat are severe. One can only hope that whoever was responsible for the most recent ordeal is identified and faces the consequences without leniency.

A gun conspiracy

While our community grappled with local safety issues this week, more sweeping concerns about national safety — particularly regarding guns — played out on the national stage.

It was hard to stomach the hostile partisan reaction to President Obama's very limited, modest proposals to help stem the flow of weaponry to the mentally disturbed and to criminals by closing massive background-check loopholes, improving access to mental health facilities, adding 200 enforcement agents to a depleted ATF force, and adopting smart-gun technology.

Mr. Obama made an eloquent, persuasive and emotional case at his White House briefing on Tuesday. His proposals should be no-brainers, the minimum response an enlightened citizenry should demand of their leaders.

But no, once again — egged on by the dismissive rantings of the NRA, far-right politicians and talk show entertainers — the hue and cry has been raised over an alleged plot to confiscate some or all of the 300 million-plus weapons in the hands of Americans.

At Thursday night's town hall meeting televised by CNN, the president was visibly irritated, as he should have been, when moderator Anderson Cooper cut him off as Mr. Obama answered a questioner: "This notion of a conspiracy out there ..."

"Is it fair to call it a conspiracy?" Cooper interrupted rudely. "A lot of people really believe this deeply. They just don't trust you."

"I'm sorry, Cooper. Yes it is fair to call it a conspiracy," the president responded with justifiable impatience. "What are you saying? Are you suggesting that the notion that we are creating a plot to take everybody's guns away so that we can impose martial law is [not] a conspiracy? Yes that is a conspiracy! I would hope that you would agree with that. Is that controversial?"

"I'm only going to be here for another year," Mr. Obama added. "When would I have started on this enterprise, right?"

Naturally, the NRA leaders had rejected an invitation to join the discussion at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., a mile away from the association's national headquarters.

Maybe the president is suspect among gun enthusiasts for never having owned a firearm. Then again, half the country chooses not to be armed.

Nothing the president has ever advocated remotely suggests the slightest prospect that law-abiding gun owners and purchasers would be deprived of their weapons.

But in the alternate reality of Fox News, misleading statements by the Republican presidential hopefuls and the ramblings of Rush Limbaugh and his many talk-radio imitators, no matter what the president says, he's a menace to national security and to gun owners protected by their interpretation of the Second Amendment.

A conspiracy? That's a good description of what Mr. Obama is facing.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com.


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