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Continued school threats strain districts across Maine

Mt. Ararat recently faced a second bomb threat while multiple Readfield schools locked down after a report of a student at school with a gun.

TOPSHAM, Maine — On Monday evening, Heidi O'Leary barely had time to rest after a long day at work.

That morning, MSAD 75's interim superintendent had told Mt. Ararat Middle School students to stay away, and instead go to the high school after staff returned from their weekend to find a voicemail claiming there was a bomb in the school. Arriving Topsham police officers, including K9 units, searched the school and found no bomb.

At 7:15 pm, O'Leary said, another bomb threat was reported at the middle school. Again, police found no explosives.

Topsham Police Chief Marc Hagan said Tuesday the repeated hoaxes strained his department and the community. He said he has one school resource officer, who typically spends most of her time in the high school. Instead, she had been moved to the middle school for the time being, alongside other officers who Hagan stationed to show both students and any would-be perpetrator that the building was safe. Other officers, he said, would visit the district's other schools.

Hagan filed to subpoena phone records and attempt to trace the source of the calls, which he believed were related. He said an arrest would greatly help deter others in the future.

"I think if everybody in the area saw that somebody was caught and charged and actually convicted of it, it might send a little bit of a message if they saw that somebody was held accountable," he said Tuesday, outside Topsham PD.

Meanwhile, four schools in the Readfield area locked down Tuesday, after Kents Hill school leaders announced someone told them a student claimed to have a weapon on campus. The announcement said police and staff searched the campus, including student belongings, and couldn't find a weapon.

Mac Hardy is the director of operations for the National Association of School Resource Officers. He said students faced trauma from watching social media posts and news reports of other schools experiencing threats, and then having those threats arrive at their school.

Like Hagan, Hardy said swift prosecution is the best deterrent; an airtight response plan is the best plan B.

"Let's have the discussion in our school systems around the community, on having the police and the school systems come together, and make sure that if it does happen in their school, that they have a plan of action," Hardy said.

The Portland Police Department has evolved its plan of action after the school board removed SROs in 2020. Witnesses and Interim Assistant Chief Robert Martin said the department responded instantly to an active shooter hoax call Monday at Casco Bay High School. 

Martin wished Portland's schools still had SROs, but said his officers hold regular meetings with them instead; attempting to keep relationships and tactics fresh.

"On a monthly basis, we meet with the superintendent and assistant superintendent, and discuss issues that are happening in the schools," Martin said.

Martin said his team also had a debrief with school officials after a recent threat response at Portland High School and will do the same with leadership at Casco Bay High School.

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