Schools’ policies on gun, bomb threats vary

Wednesday’s bomb joke investigated at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School comes as the community is still on edge from the Jan. 24 arrest of a Penn State Altoona student for allegedly possessing a homemade bomb, in addition to October’s threats about a bomb in the county courthouse and contamination of the Hollidaysburg area water supply.

Both of the October threats, made by email, turned out to be false, but resulted in an evacuation around the courthouse for a couple of hours and two days of water restrictions.

Hollidaysburg Area solicitor Dave Andrews said Thursday that the district has not yet chosen a disciplinary action for the student who joked about having planted C4 explosives in the senior high school cafeteria on Wednesday.

Superintendent Bob Gildea said Wednesday that the student immediately admitted to making the joke when interviewed by administrators and police, who arrived with a bomb-sniffing dog that scoured the premises while students were temporarily locked in classrooms.

It was a joke gone terribly wrong.

The trouble is, the consensus among area school administrators shows, there are no jokes about bombs.

At other districts – in a situation like Hollidaysburg – discipline would be administered according to a district’s student code of conduct.

Immediately, the minimum actions would be taken – suspension being among them, said Travis Lee, Williamsburg Community School District Junior-Senior High School principal. Then, other contextual factors would be considered to determine whether the school district imposes further levels of discipline.

“Contextual factors include the student’s disciplinary history, the recent history of the school and immediate events that affected the community,” Lee said.

Altoona Area School District’s Student Code of Conduct lists bomb threats as a “level 4” misconduct, which can result in expulsion from school. At the least, a bomb threat results in a mandatory 10-day out-of-school suspension, then an administrative hearing to decide further action, district spokeswoman Paula Foreman said.

The Altoona Area Code of Conduct states that most of the acts listed in the level 4 category are clearly criminal and so serious that they always require administrative actions, which result in the immediate removal of the student from school, the intervention of law enforcement authorities and action by the school board.

School districts hold parent conferences to determine discipline, but if parents and administrators don’t agree, then school law provides parents the opportunity to request a formal hearing including the superintendent, school solicitor and an attorney hired by the board to serve as a hearing officer. A stenographer, too, could be required.

“Expenses can add up if you have to go through the formal process,” Spring Cove School District Superintendent Robert Vadella said.

But most districts nix the stenographer, instead opting for digital recorders. A district can spend a few hundred dollars on an expulsion hearing, Andrews said. He said he’s never seen districts shy away from expulsion hearings because of expenses involved.

“Administrators take discipline more seriously than they ever have,” he said, noting multiple expulsion hearings approved by Hollidaysburg Area and Altoona Area school boards recently.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.