BONNERS FERRY – Bomb threats at the high school here are such a problem this year, students are required to sign in and out of bathrooms, where messages found scrawled inside toilet stalls have triggered repeated evacuations.
“It’s an odd job,” admitted substitute teacher Barb Colegrove, who has spent eight-hour days the past three weeks monitoring restroom traffic and regularly inspecting lavatory walls.
“The kids would love to have this over with,” Colegrove said.
Boundary County School District has been subjected to nine bomb threats since late October, and investigators have identified several juvenile suspects. But officials believe more students are responsible, and they are taking unconventional steps to get to the bottom of it.
During a break between classes this week, lines of students eager to relieve themselves formed in front of Colegrove’s small table, where she keeps the sign-in sheet and a clock to note the time.
A camera in the hallway also records who enters and leaves the bathrooms. Between the video footage, visitor log and monitor checks, officials hope they can pin down who leaves a new threat, or deter students from making another.
“We’re vigorously pursuing catching the perpetrator or perpetrators,” said Richard Conley, superintendent of the Boundary County School District. “That’s why there’s an $11,000 reward, as the community is fed up with it.”
Two people recently put up the money for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the threats. Any student who makes a bomb threat faces expulsion and felony charges.
Four threats were written or scratched inside restrooms at Bonners Ferry High School, including two early this month. Three threats were found at the middle school next door, and two came in as calls to the county’s 911 dispatch center and did not specify a school.
A juvenile male who does not attend school in the district faces charges for making the phone threats, and two middle-school students also may be charged for leaving threats. In addition, a high school student has been suspended and could face charges as well, authorities said.
The threats prompted evacuations so police could search the buildings, including classrooms and lockers. The nearly 500 high school students as well as teachers and staff walked to nearby middle or elementary schools to wait in gymnasiums until officers decided it was safe to return.
Police have been assisted by the sheriff’s department, fire department, ambulance crews, U.S. Border Patrol agents, U.S. Forest Service officers and explosive-sniffing dogs from Spokane.
“It’s very draining on our resources,” Police Chief Steve Benkula said. “It takes us a minimum of two hours to clear a school of any possible bomb threat.”
Investigations take much longer. Police interviewed 40 potential witnesses and suspects just for the first threat last fall, Benkula said.
The high school was closed for the rest of the day following the first two threats. In all, 13 hours of class time have been lost so far – time that will need to be made up before summer break, school officials said.
Students have lost patience with the bomb scares, Principal Kirk Hoff said.
“It was fun, I think, for the students the first day. But after an hour in a crowded gym and not really much to do, they were tired of that,” Hoff said.
The teens have grown more restless this month as they lost the privilege of an open campus during lunch. The sanction is meant to pressure the student body to help put an end to the threats, Hoff said.
“We’ve just been ramping it up,” he said. “The more bomb threats, the tighter it gets.”
Anytime someone starts to make an announcement on the school intercom, students brace for another possible evacuation, said Bradley Thompson, 17, student body vice president. “It’s at the point where it’s kind of ridiculous,” he said.
McKenzie MacDonald, 17, the junior class treasurer, said the disruptions are frustrating but have rallied students to be on the lookout for those responsible.
“A lot of people say, ‘If I find out who it is, I’m going to report it for sure,’ ” MacDonald said. “There’s really nobody out there to keep the secret if they find out who it is.”
Student leaders organized a high school assembly earlier this month to emphasize how disruptive the threats have been and how critical it is to put an end to them.
“That was real impressive, and I think that probably helped,” Benkula said.
Hoff said he admires the spirit the school is showing in the face of the threats.
“It’s a great group of students. And they’re looking for ways to constructively find the people who are doing it,” he said.
“It’s just a few misguided students, I think.”