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Bomb threat, fire alarms rattle Berkeley High

By David Scharfenberg
Friday October 04, 2002


A bomb threat and a string of at least 10 false fire alarms at Berkeley High School have disrupted classes and raised safety concerns in the last week. 

In connection with the false fire alarms, police have arrested six students, Berkeley police spokesperson Mary Kusmiss said. 

Police have no suspects in the bomb threat but they have clues from a telephone recording and from finger prints they lifted off a public phone.  

At 11:20 a.m. Tuesday a caller to the high school warned that the school would “blow up” at noon, Kusmiss said.  

The department’s 911 system traced the phone call to a pay phone in the basement of Berkeley High’s Florence Schwimley Little Theater, she said. 

Ten officers responded to the call and found no suspicious packages at the school. Administrators, in consultation with the police, decided not to evacuate. Police took fingerprints from the phone and, in reviewing the tape, determined that the caller was likely an Asian teenage male.  

A bomb threat is a felony and is punishable up to a year in prison for an adult, but a minor would likely face a lesser penalty, Kusmiss said. 

A false fire alarm is a misdemeanor and maximum punishment for an adult is six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. But Kusmiss said minors would likely face no more than probation.  

The school, though, plans to pursue expulsion in an undetermined number of cases. 

“Let’s face it, almost 100 percent of the students are here to learn,” said Berkeley High School dean of students Meg Matan, explaining the decision to seek expulsion. “They’re feeling frustrated, we’re feeling frustrated. ... We want to support the kids who are here.” 

The expulsion process is a lengthy one that ultimately requires Board of Education approval. 

Berkeley High co-principal Laura Leventer said the fire alarms began Sept. 26 and peaked Tuesday with six in one day. She said the alarms created a number of problems, including lost class time. 

“You’re missing your education which is, of course, very important,” Leventer said. 

Sophomore O.J. Denton said students were happy to get a break from class during the first few alarms, but quickly soured on them. 

“The first couple of times it was like, whatever,” Denton said. “Then I started getting frustrated.” 

Denton said the constant interruptions affected his ability to do classwork. 

Leventer added that repeated alarms were a safety concern for disabled and injured students who have trouble getting up and down stairs quickly. 

“Complacency is also an issue,” she said, arguing that if students and staff get used to false alarms, they might not react quickly in the case of a real emergency. 

Matan, the dean of students, said the high school has become more vigilant in the wake of the false alarms, maintaining a heavy adult presence, including some parent volunteers, at vulnerable fire alarms. 

“The parents have been hugely supportive,” she said. “They’ve been great.” 

Matan said the increased adult presence in the hallways has had a positive side effect – encouraging students to stay in class. 

“Something that was negative has turned out to be a positive thing,” she said. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence added that the rash of fire alarms has prompted better communication with the police and fire departments, boosting long-term safety and security at the high school. 

Matan said one alarm sounded Thursday, but only in the midst of a staff training. It was the first day in a week that a pupil did not pull an alarm. 


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