BOSTON – School and law enforcement officials in New England say they are dealing with an unusually high number of bomb threats that have forced the cancellation of classes just weeks into the new academic year.
Nearly a dozen schools and colleges in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut have received the threats, forcing evacuations and cancellations in many of the schools this past week.
Local school and law enforcement officials say they aren't sure if they're dealing with a coordinated effort or a number of copycats. But the sheer number of threats in such a short amount of time is concerning, they say.
"Something unusual is taking place here," said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "To have it at the very beginning of the school year and to have this many is an anomaly."
He said school districts tend to see bomb threats throughout the school year, including around exam time in June.
The communities of Bedford, Mass. and Bedford, New Hampshire were both forced to cancel classes at their high schools when they received threats on Oct. 1.
Sandy Hook Elementary School's temporary home in Monroe, Connecticut, was also evacuated that day after receiving a bomb threat by phone, putting a community still reeling from the December 2012 massacre that killed 26 children and teachers on edge.
And campus police at Harvard University tightened security over the weekend after hundreds of students and people affiliated with the Ivy League school received an email threatening a mass shooting on campus.
The latest threats came Monday when school officials in the affluent Boston suburb of Winchester cancelled high school classes after receiving an emailed threat and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts was temporarily evacuated when police received a 911 call claiming there were multiple bombs on the western Massachusetts campus.
Many of the threats remain under investigation.
The FBI's Boston office said Monday it is aware of the bomb threats and is offering assistance as needed but leaving local officials to take the lead in the investigations.
Scott says the bomb threats are causing significant disruptions early in the school year, taking away from valuable class time, causing scheduling headaches for working parents and forcing schools to expend limited resources to cover staff and administrative costs.
In New Hampshire, Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski said responding to the threats, many of which had been unfounded, hinders local department's ability to handle other emergencies. "Thankfully, we do not receive many threats in Bedford, but we do treat each one as a serious matter that demonstrates we will vigorously investigate these cases and prosecute those responsible," he said.
In Winchester, Christian Nixon, a parent and school committee chairman, says he appreciates the district's "quick and decisive action" to cancel classes and the "thoroughness" of emergency responders. "Regardless of any perceived pattern, our primary focus as a district is on the safety, security, and welfare of our students, teachers, and staff," he said.
John Guilfoil, who handles public relations for some of the Massachusetts police departments that have dealt with the bomb threats, expects departments in the coming weeks will be reminding officers to continue to treat each incident seriously.
"No one is going to fault a police department for deciding to cancel school because of a threat," he said. "It's much, much more responsible to do something out of an abundance of caution than to put young people in harm's way."