PRINCETON: Officials remain calm in the face of recent bomb threats to schools

By Lea Kahn and Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writers
John Witherspoon Middle School on Walnut Lane was evacuated briefly Wednesday morning because of a phoned-in bomb threat that turned out to be a hoax, the third district school that had been pranked in that way since Thursday.
Wednesday’s incident and the two last week marked the resumption locally of a series of computer-generated phone threats targeting schools around the state and the country, a phenomenon known as swatting. The district faced six swatting calls last spring.
The latest came around 10:45, as a call into the JW main office led to the school of 721 students and 116 staff to be evacuated across the street to the Princeton High School Performing Arts Center, officials said. Law enforcement with the aid of five bomb dogs searched the middle school and the surrounding area finding nothing, officials said. Everyone was allowed to return around 1:10 p.m. after authorities deemed it was safe.
The computer-generated phone call received by the middle school is similar to threats made to Riverside Elementary School and the high school, last Thursday and Friday, respectively. Police searched those schools as well but nothing was found.
“These continued incidents of swatting are generating frustration and anxiety for all of us,” Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane wrote in a message to the community on Wednesday. “Nevertheless, our calm and mutual collaboration continues to be the best response in the face of the potential disruption the perpetrators of these calls want to create.”
This week, police and school officials sought to update the community about the threats to Riverside and the high school. In remarks at the Princeton Council meeting on Monday, police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter said police are working with state and federal authorities, and that he is in regular contact with Mr. Cochrane.
“We are making progress from an investigative standpoint,” he told Mayor Liz Lempert and the council.
He said police have received best practices from state and federal authorities on how schools “can try to mitigate” the effect the calls have.
“Without getting too specific, there are some measures that we can take that can help us vet these threats and lessen, to the extent possible, the impact they have on our schools,” he said.
In his message Wednesday, Mr. Cochrane said the district “is researching changes to our phone system that would filter calls from phones with no or blocked ID’s.”
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Mr. Cochrane said the two threats last week were responded to differently. At Riverside, the pre-recorded threat said there was a bomb in a student’s locker, but there are no student lockers at that school.
“The credibility of the threat was significantly reduced,” Mr. Cochrane said in explaining why the school was not evacuated.
The next day, a caller to the high school said he was in the parking lot and that he would be able to detonate a bomb in the school, Mr. Cochrane said. The high school was evacuated, to let authorities check the inside and outside of the building.
“The responses were different, the responses were all appropriate,” Mr. Cochrane said.