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Student arrested in connection to bomb threat at Birchland Park

Date: 12/26/2012

This story is an update to the one previously posted.

By Chris Maza

EAST LONGMEADOW — A 14-year-old Birchland Park Middle School student was arrested in connection with the bomb threat against the school on Dec. 19 and a criminal complaint is being sought against his co-conspirator, a 17-year-old boy from Washington state.

East Longmeadow Police Sgt. Patrick Manley told Reminder Publications that the 14-year-old, whose name was not released, was arrested within hours of the incident.

"An individual, a 14-year-old, was placed into custody at 8 p.m. for his involvement in the bomb threat," Manley said.

The school was evacuated at approximately 2 p.m. on Dec. 19 in response to a statement made via phone to the front office that there was an explosive device in the school.

The Birchland Park student did not make the threat directly, but "helped in concocting the scheme," Manley said. The boy's accomplice, 17-year-old Charles Tilton of Issaquah, Wash., a town about 20 minutes east of Seattle, made the call as part of a plan the two had hatched after developing a friendship via an Internet gaming network.

"The caller said, 'There's a bomb in the school and everyone is going to die,'" Manley said.

According to Manley, charges would be brought against the student in Hampden County Juvenile Court and a criminal complaint was also being sought against Tilton in Palmer District Court.

"We took this very seriously and hopefully the prosecution will be equally as serious," Manley said.

School resumed on Dec. 20 after a search of the school yielded no explosive device.

Police Chief Douglas Mellis told the Board of Selectmen at its Dec. 19 meeting that a State Police bomb-sniffing dog was used in a search of the building and no device was located.

A recorded phone message to East Longmeadow residents on Dec. 19 from Superintendent Gordon Smith stated, "The State Police bomb squad along with local police officers, fire fighters, and ELPS administrators and staff thoroughly searched the building for any explosive device. Nothing was found during this search. The Birchland Park Middle School has been deemed safe."

Manley said that the timing of the threat coincided with the end of the school day and therefore faculty and staff coordinated the evacuation with bus and parent pick-ups, ensuring that every child got home safely.

"This occurred shortly after 2 p.m., contemporaneous with the dismissal of students, so without much time to organize, the staff here did their normal evacuation and school bus pickup at the same time," Manley said, explaining that the buses and parents were able to pick up children on Hanward Hill Road. "Everyone got out of school safely and went home safely."

Mellis explained that while the staff was able to effectively get everyone out of the building, the timing of the threat complicated the situation.

"It couldn't have been at a worse time," Mellis said. "It preceded the dismissal of the schools, so there were kids out of classrooms, kids at lockers in the hallways, buses and parents in car lines. We had some problems getting down there by the buses so we could respond to the school itself. It was a little chaotic to say the least."

While initial media reports said that a threat was written on a bathroom wall, Manley and Mellis said those reports were inaccurate.

"There was some erroneous information that was out there. Social media is good and bad in some circumstances and if it's the wrong information, it spreads like wildfire," Mellis further explained to the selectmen. "In this case, word was there was a message that was left either on a mirror or on a bathroom stall. No such message was found. We got a hold of the news media that had posted a website article on that and they subsequently took it down. We had been attributed as to making that statement about a message being left there, which we did not do."

Mellis also credited Reminder Publications with publishing correct information.

"The Reminder, in fact, did not post that information. They posted what they knew and what we had released to them," he said.

The threat came just days after the massacre of 26 people — 20 of them children — at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. In response to that incident, Smith recently met with Mellis to discuss the school's safety procedures and additional training and Manley said that those measures "worked in this case."

Mellis said, "We want to put people's minds to rest that the schools are safe. I've been in discussions with the superintendent and we had a leadership meeting on [Dec. 18] at the school."

Mellis added that some residents commented on the large and visible police presence at Birchland Park on Dec. 18, but noted that it was due to the special election and the meeting that were taking place that day.

"We do normally have three officers when school is in session at the polls," he said. "We had a fourth just to make sure there was no transfer of residents accidentally going down the wrong corridor into the classroom area where studies were taking place and a couple of other cruisers were there because we were involved in the leadership meetings."

In addition to the district's meeting with public safety officials, East Longmeadow schools are taking measures to reassure parents of the safety of students when in the confines of school buildings.

East Longmeadow High School Principal Gina Flanagan addressed concerns regarding school safety in the wake of the shooting in a blog post on the high school's website, assuring parents that incidents such as these were uncommon, but that the school takes extensive preventative measures.

She said that in addition to all doors being locked throughout the day and the presence of a student resources officer, her school has already put its comprehensive safety plan into action. She explained that on two separate occasions this academic year, the entire school conducted drills simulating an intruder lockdown as well as a full evacuation of the building.

"We will continue to run these drills regularly so that our students and staff are on alert and know what is expected of them in an emergency," Flanagan said.

Seven new cameras, which are monitored by the school resource officer, administration and staff, were also installed during the summer.

Meadowbrook School Principal Lisa Dakin told parents via the school's website that her school had also recently conducted a lockdown drill under the supervision of a student resource officer and like East Longmeadow High School, keeps all doors locked during school hours and had new security cameras at their disposal.

All of the schools are also providing the opportunity for students to speak with counselors and have made information available to parents on how to talk to children about violence.