FAIRBANKS — Fairbanks North Star Borough schools will no longer accept anonymous calls as part of an attempt to foil a series of threatening calls received by local schools.
During the past month and a half, several schools in the borough have received anonymous calls making vague threats to students.
The Fairbanks Police Department, Fort Wainwright police and Alaska State Troopers have responded to calls at Ryan Middle School, Tanana Middle School, Arctic Light Elementary School, Ryan Middle School, Weller Elementary School and others in the past month.
A pattern emerges
Since March 25, more than half a dozen schools in the borough have been placed on lockdown because of anonymous phone calls that appear to fit a pattern. As local and state law enforcement began looking into the series of calls, they discovered the pattern existed well beyond the borders of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
A similar incident occurred in Southcentral Alaska earlier this week, when Glennallen Elementary School went into lockdown. The pattern didn’t stop there. Strikingly similar reports have cropped up all over the west coast, as far away as Washington state and Arizona.
In most cases, a call is placed to school using a blocked, or anonymous, phone number. The voice on the other end of the line seems to be either computer-altered or a robotic recording of some kind that makes a threat against the school. The threats vary, but the calls usually come in the early afternoon — often near dismissal — and have been reported mostly in small towns or rural areas.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is coordinating with troopers, Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright police and other local law enforcement agencies to conduct an investigation of the perpetrators.
The callers have made bomb threats or generalized threats to harm the staff or students of the school, but — at least in the case of Fairbanks-area schools — have not made any comments that would indicate knowledge of or animosity toward the specific school they’re calling, according to Fairbanks Police Lt. Eric Jewkes.
“It’s not the same statement every time,” Jewkes said. “They’ve all been pretty generic. There’s no specific intent or expressed malice toward a specific school or student.”
In each of the cases, police have found no credible threat.
Impact on students
Although no credible threat has yet been found, that does not mean there is no detrimental effect on staff or students.
Each time a threat has been received, the school in question has gone into lockdown mode, during which all exterior doors are locked, windows are covered and students are kept inside their classrooms. All instruction ceases, and the focus shifts entirely to ensuring the safety of students.
“When a school goes into lockdown, an entire school becomes silent. Doors close, students are pulled into classrooms,” Gaborik said. “The idea is to protect yourself as much as possible and wait for law enforcement to arrive.”
In a lockdown, classrooms are disconnected from each other and from the building administration.
Though the principal would know the specific situation, most teachers and students, locked in their rooms with the windows covered, would not know what was happening outside.
The calls also cause disruption to instruction, according to Gaborik. Regular teaching cannot resume at a school until police have cleared the premises and declared it safe. Often in those cases, as happened with Arctic Light Elementary, dismissal is affected. In that case, students were evacuated from the school grounds and were not able to go home until the evening.
Fairbanks School District Superintendent Karen Gaborik met with representatives from the Fairbanks Police Department and Alaska State Troopers to discuss the incidents on Tuesday, before the most recent incident that forced Tanana Middle and Ladd Elementary schools into lockdown.
That meeting led to the decision to stop accepting calls from blocked numbers. District administrators set the phone system to automatically block calls from numbers that do not show up.
The change took effect at 1 p.m. today. Parents with blocked phone numbers who wish to reach their child’s school may call the district’s downtown office at 452-2000 to receive help or take steps to unblock their phone numbers.
Gaborik said she hopes the change to the phone system will reduce or eliminate the problem in Fairbanks. She said other than that, the main thing she hopes to do in response is to continue working with principals and teachers on lockdown procedures and attempt to keep parents as much in the loop as possible.
Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMschools.