School bomb threats terrorize communities. They rob students of class time. And they cost taxpayers money.
Consider that it cost the Bergen County Police Department - which typically is dispatched to schools to search for bombs - an estimated $66,240 to respond to such threats over the last six years. Costs for the Passaic County Sheriff's Department have amounted to about $196,000.
"If you have one bomb threat, it can not only involve a local police department but sheriff's responders and potentially fire and first aid, and it all costs money," said state Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin, R-Monmouth, who has sponsored a bill to stiffen penalties for anyone who causes a false public alarm. "That money has to be replenished from tax dollars most of the time. This is in the category of utter waste."
Anyone found guilty of causing a false public alarm must pay a minimum $2,000 fine or the costs incurred by law-enforcement and emergency services responses -- whichever is higher, said Denyse Coyle Galda, chief of the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office's juvenile unit.
"It's a question of how they're charged, though," she said. "If they're charged with terroristic threats and not false public alarm, then the civil penalty won't kick in, because it only applies to the false public alarm charge."
Much of the cost for the Passaic County Sheriff's Department is figured into budgets because "these are individual employees at work," said Bill Maer, a department spokesman.
It's unclear how much money is recouped from offenders. Neither the Bergen nor the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office keeps records of the total fines associated with people found guilty of false public alarm in the last six years.
Galda said she recalled four incidents involving students in the last year "where there were bomb threats where someone was charged and brought to court."
"The vast majority [of school bomb threats] remain unsolved, unfortunately," she said.
One of the four involved two teenage boys accused of threatening to bomb the Demarest and Old Tappan campuses of Northern Valley Regional High School. A school principal received an e-mail containing the threat on Nov. 21, which prompted the evacuation of the Old Tappan campus, police said.
The students confessed to also e-mailing an Oct. 4 bomb threat that led to the Demarest campus's evacuation.
A 17-year-old from Closter pleaded guilty earlier this month to three counts of causing false public alarm, Galda said. Superior Court Judge Harold Hollenbeck suspended the teenager's driver's license for six months and ordered him to serve a year of probation and perform 30 hours of community service. Charges against the other student are pending.
The guilty student also will be fined, with the amount to be determined by May 1. The costs submitted by the Demarest Police Department alone suggest it could be hefty.
The department incurred $2,252 in overtime and hourly expenses to investigate the Oct. 4 bomb threat, said Demarest Police Chief James Powderley. The Nov. 21 threat cost $1,364, he said.
"Early on, we said we wanted restitution and the county asked for a breakdown," Galda said.
Powderley said he's seeking the funds for several reasons: "in fairness to the community for the extra expenses we've incurred and to send a message to the people that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated."