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BOMBarded by threats

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By Beth Braden

JELLICO—It happened again Wednesday. For the fourth time in a 12-month period, students were evacuated from Jellico High School after a bomb threat. The Campbell County Sheriff’s Office and Knox County Bomb Squad again went to the scene to search the school.

It was a false alarm.

The same thing happened just last week.

Ethan Morgan, a freshman, was sitting in his second-block English class on Friday when a classmate received a text message the school was about to be evacuated. Minutes later, another student returned from the restroom and confirmed the text.

At that point, students began gathering their belongings.

“We knew what we had to do,” Morgan said.

Deputies raced to the scene and students made the chilly walk .4 mile walk to Crouches Creek Baptist Church — the designated safe haven when the school is deemed dangerous. Knox County’s bomb squad was dispatched to make the 100-mile round xtrip to ensure no explosives lurked in the school.

The incident is almost an exact replica of a Dec. 13, 2013 scene. In that case, a student found a threat written on the wall, though further investigation revealed the message had been written days earlier and had gone unnoticed.

Last January, the school was again closed for several hours as a bomb squad brought their explosives-sniffing dog to clear the facility.

The frequent threats have left law enforcement and school officials wondering if stiffer penalties could curtail the problem.

All of the students who made the false threats were identified and punished through the court system. They were also removed from the high school and made to attend class at the alternative school.

“We could [expel them],” said Larry Nidiffer, secondary education supervisor for the Campbell County Board of Education. “Most kids just don’t think through things.”

All of the students have been remorseful once caught, Nidiffer said.

Some of the students agree.

“I think they should place much harsher punishment,” Morgan said.

Jellico’s three bomb threats aren’t the only cases in our county within the last 15 months. In November 2012, the Campbell County Courthouse was one of several East Tennessee courthouses that received a bomb threat. The threat interrupted court proceedings for several hours.

In February 2013, a District 3-AAA tournament game at Campbell County High School was delayed following a bomb threat via Twitter by an Anderson County High School student. Even though the student told deputies there was no danger, the facility still had to be evacuated and searched.

Quantifying how much each bomb threat costs in dollars proves difficult.

If the sheriff’s office sends five deputies who spend eight hours at the scene, personnel costs will quickly rise to $1,000, according to Campbell County Sheriff Robbie Goins. Deputies and investigators also lose time that could be spent working on other cases.

“It does take up a lot of time unnecessarily. We want to prosecute every one of them,” Goins said.

As for the board of education, Nidiffer estimates the cost is much higher when the pay of teachers, staff and other workers is taken into account.

The cost could reach into the tens of thousands, Nidiffer said.

“Tax dollars ultimately pay for this,” he said.

Beyond wages paid to employees who are unable to work, hours of instruction time are lost.

“They (teachers) try to add a few minutes of instruction a day until they get caught up,” he said.

Students voiced their displeasure to Nidiffer during his visit to Jellico High School on Feb. 3.

“Even the students are getting concerned,” he said.

Morgan said he wasn’t alarmed during the most recent bomb threat, and neither were his classmates.

“Nobody was scared this time,” he said. “The first time I was terrified.”

Teachers seemed annoyed, he said.

“They said we’re gonna have to start holding class over here at the fellowship hall,” Morgan said.

Motivation in the Jellico threats appears to be the desire to get out of school.

“[They do it to] get out of school, cause disruption. I guess you could say it gives them a sense of power at that time,” Nidiffer said.

Central office employees could meet as early as this week to further discuss the recent bomb threat issues.

“We are gonna have a committee meeting on that because we’re really getting concerned,” Nidiffer said.