N.J. county counts costs of school bomb threats

April 2, 2008
N.J. county police estimate costs involved for responding to, searching schools

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."

Galda agreed that the civil penalty is designed to send a message.

"You always hope it's a deterrent for somebody else because when we look at it, typically, [threats are made] because somebody has a test coming up and they didn't want to take the test. It's a sad commentary that this is where we're at now."

Passaic prosecutors, who began tracking charges related to school bomb threats in the fall, said there were 10 juvenile arrests in 18 school bomb threats that occurred between September and December.

Seven of the 10 juveniles' cases were resolved: They received probationary terms, said Capt. Frank P. Feenan of the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office. Two juveniles were ordered to pay $2,000 fines.

Seven school bomb threats have been reported in the county in 2008 with no arrests, he said.

Statewide, the number of bomb threatshas declined from pre-9/11, post-Columbine levels: There were 136 reported in the 2005-06 school year, compared with 266 in the 2000-01 school year, according to the state Department of Education. But it has been climbing slightly in recent years.

The Bergen County Police Department has responded to 96 school bomb threats since January 2002 - all of which turned out to be false, said police Capt. Kevin Hartnett. In Passaic County, the Sheriff's Department has been dispatched to investigate 200 school bomb threats or reports of suspicious packages during the same time period.

Some of the numbers are attributed to periodic waves of threats and copycat incidents that occur throughout the state.

A September bomb threat in Emerson that forced school closures in 10 northern Bergen County towns for some 12,000 students led to a series of threats at schools across the area.

While no arrest has been made in that case, Emerson Mayor Louis Lamatina said he'll push for fines when it occurs.

"If you think it's a prank, you're going to pay for your prank," he said. "How many parents lost time that day from taking off or couldn't go to work because of the evacuations? That's a cost that will never get reimbursed."

A copycat threat in September closed down School 15 in Paterson after officials found a note threatening bomb attacks at certain times and three small fires were set inside the school.

There has been no arrest in that case, said Paterson Detective Lt. Anthony Traina.

"You're talking about a lot more than $2,000 here," he said of the costs associated with the response and investigation by the various agencies.

Handlin said she considered it crucial to keep the existing fines in her bill, which was introduced in 2006 following a rash of school bomb threats in Monmouth County and remains under consideration by the Assembly's public safety committee. Her bill also makes parents liable for the fines when a juvenile is found guilty.

"I think it's critical to keep [the fines] because the costs are real and there's no special pot of money from which these kinds of expenses can be paid without starving other parts of a municipality's budget," she said.

Fining teenagers won't be as much of a deterrent as, say, mandating a year's worth of community service for those who make bomb threats, said Maki Haberfeld, a police science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"What teenager has this amount of money at his or her disposal?" she said. "What parent won't help?"

By the numbers:

$690: Average cost for Bergen County Police Department to respond to a school bomb threat.

96: The number of school bomb threats the Bergen County Police Department has responded to since January 2002.

Source: Bergen County Police Department

E-mail: [email protected]