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String of threats plagues area schools

State troopers walk across the front entrance of Warren County High School on Thursday morning to their parked cruisers after spending the morning at the school. Rich Cooley/Daily

Authorities responded to multiple threats against area schools Wednesday and Thursday, spurring the evacuation of a middle school and police investigations in Shenandoah, Warren and Frederick counties.

The threats over the two days include a bomb threat at Warren County Middle School, an active shooter alert at Massanutten Military Academy and an anonymous online threat against “SHS” on Wednesday.

A student at Warren County Middle School made a reference to a bomb at the school Thursday, according to a Warren County Sheriff’s Office news release, and was subsequently interviewed by Warren County school resource officers.

The school administration decided to evacuate the students via bus to the Warren County High School gymnasium. Parents were alerted by automated phone calls and were told they could pick up their children from the high school.

The release stated that K-9 units and a bomb technician responded to the middle school, but “nothing was located.” The school was declared safe and turned back over to the faculty, though the release added that “there are students being questioned in relation to the ‘Bomb Threat’ and the investigation continues.”

Front Royal police patrolman Dave Leonard, left, and Sgt. Robbie Seal, right, stand at the intersection of Leach Run Parkway and Oden Street where traffic was blocked. Rich Cooley/Daily

Around 12:30 p.m. Thursday, school officials received the all-clear and the students were bused back to the middle school. Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher said “many” students had already been taken home by parents at that time, but he did not have an exact head count Thursday afternoon.

Before this threat, the high school staff was notified of a social media post that, according to the Sheriff’s Office release, “brought concern.” A student  described only as “involved in the social media post” was located, interviewed and released to his parents, though the investigation is ongoing.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to describe the nature of this earlier threat, when it was received, and if any precautions were put in place as a result.

At Massanutten Military Academy, Woodstock police responded at approximately 7 p.m. Wednesday to an active shooter alert on the school’s campus.

Capt. Chris Baker, of the Woodstock police, said that the incident was resolved quickly. A day student, Malcom M. Vest, 18, was charged with possession of a weapon on Thursday, and the weapon turned out to be a pellet gun.

Ashley Woznica, 16, left, a Warren County High School student, and her brother Bobby, 14, a Warren County Middle School student, walk out of the high school Thursday with their grandmother Shari Ryerson following the school threat. Rich Cooley/Daily

“During the course of the investigation, we learned that he had no intention of doing anything involving the school. It was merely for his security, that’s why he was carrying the pellet gun … on school property,” Baker said.

Area officials were also alerted Wednesday to a post made on social media referencing a threat to “SHS.” It was unclear if this referred to Skyline, Strasburg or Sherando High School — or none of these.

It was determined by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and other police organizations that the threat originated from Springfield, Ohio, and had rapidly traveled across the county.

Steve Edwards, Frederick County Public Schools coordinator for policy and communication, said there was no interruption to the division’s regular operations Thursday, though messages were sent to students’ parents to assuage their worries.

“The principal at Sherando sent out a communication this morning to all parents … via phone and email just to make parents aware that if they had heard about a threat against SHS, that it had been thoroughly looked into by the Sheriff’s Office and determined to be in Springfield, Ohio,” Edwards said.

Police and bomb dogs stand outside Warren County Middle School. Rich Cooley/Daily

In Warren County, Skyline High School officials conducted searches of students’ bags Thursday and Sheriff’s Office deputies were present during the school day, but no threat was discovered.

Shenandoah County schools Superintendent Mark Johnston scorned the posts concerning the threat being shared on social media, saying that well-meaning individuals were only feeding into the paranoia.

“It’s creating lots of anxiety and stress that is totally unnecessary,” Johnston said. “You know how many SHS’s there are in the country?”

Johnston suggested that, in the future, anyone who spots a threat or something suspicious should immediately report it to the police instead of propagating the message on social media.

He also pointed to the security measures present in Shenandoah County public schools, which were accelerated by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. These include armed deputies in each school in the role of safety resource officers, and secure entrances that require visitors to be buzzed in or carry an access card.

Front Royal police patrolman Brad Pennington stands by his police SUV at the intersection of Happy Creek Road and Leach Run Parkway on Thursday as a school bus shuttles Warren County Middle School students to Warren County High School after a threat. Rich Cooley/Daily

“I would argue that our schools are safer than most any other place you would go to, because of our security measures,” Johnston said.

On Tuesday, before the recent school threats, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, sent a letter to Johnston advising of strategies to increase school security, including applying for grants under the Public School Security Equipment Grant Act and hiring retired law enforcement officers.

“Law enforcement professionals can retire after only twenty years of service, and they still possess the unique skills and experience that only a career in the field of public safety can provide,” Gilbert’s letter stated. “This is a cost-effective alternative or supplement to full-time law enforcement officers in our schools. I would challenge you to explore this option of providing additional security in our schools.”

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