Notification of bomb threat at Free State High lags as unofficial word spreads

Makeup day? Maybe

So, will Free State High School students need to make up class time lost to Thursday’s bomb threat?

“It’s yet to be determined,” said Kyle Hayden, chief operations officer for the Lawrence school district.

The state mandates that students spend a minimum number of hours in class for the year. That’s why the district builds in days for “inclement weather,” to account for time lost to snow or ice on roads without having to rearrange school calendars.

But first, district officials must determine whether students did, in fact, attend school Thursday. Hundreds had shown up for classes set to begin at 8:05 a.m., but the cancellation came just minutes before the bell rang.

“That’s something we’re going to have to look into and discuss and make a decision,” Hayden said.

Decisions about how to account for the lost work time by teachers and other employees also remain to be determined, Hayden said.

Twitter, Facebook, area media outlets and good old-fashioned word of mouth quickly spread news of a bomb threat spurring the cancellation of classes Thursday at Free State High School.

The Lawrence school district’s automated phone system — the contracted service designed to deliver official announcements and information in just these kinds of emergencies — didn’t stand a chance.

“There was definitely delayed delivery this morning,” said Kyle Hayden, the district’s chief operations officer, who acknowledged that some families hadn’t received direct, official phone notifications until an hour and a half or more after the decision to call off school. “We feel like that problem was the result of the phone lines burning up due to the initial threat being reported.”

School officials notified Lawrence police at 7:46 a.m. that a written bomb threat had been discovered at the school, 4700 Overland Drive. By then many of the school’s 1,503 students had been showing up for their “zero hour” classes, which were to begin at 8:05 a.m.

School officials quickly decided to cancel classes and evacuate the building. The first automated message going out by phone to families of Free State students was sent soon after 8 a.m.

But as people jammed phone lines with questions, comments and concerns — both at the school and the district office, 101 McDonald Drive — the message was slow getting out, Hayden said. While the first message was received at 8:14 a.m., some recordings hadn’t made their way into students’ homes or onto parents’ wireless phones until 9:30 a.m. or even later.

Even a second message, recorded and set at 8:59 a.m., took nearly an hour to reach some families,

“We’re going to have to look at that and make some adjustments,” Hayden said.

Part of the problem: The initial recording erroneously hadn’t been sent out as an “emergency” message, which likely had knocked it down a few notches on a priority list of messages being sent through the district’s hired contractor, which provides such services nationwide. But the second message did go out through an “emergency” channel, and still faced lengthy delays.

Mark Bradford, president of the Lawrence school board, said that the delays certainly should be investigated and improvements made to the notification system, if possible. But he emphasized that the notifications represented only part of an overall emergency plan, all within an environment of split-second communications.

“It was probably tweeted and on Facebook before the message was even inputted,” Bradford said, acknowledging reports that students quickly exchanged texts, logged on to social media and accessed local news sites. “This is only one of multiple ways people are notified. There are other methods of receiving school information than just this one.”

Bradford, who serves as chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical, noted that students were safely evacuated from the building. Law enforcement and district personnel were there to ensure that nobody unknowlingly walked back in. Buses took kids home. Others left in their cars — to homes, friends’ place, even IHOP.

“There are a lot of times you can’t be dependent on one source of information,” Bradford said. “In this particular case … there was staff present to be sure nobody ever was in danger.”

By 12:40 p.m., multiple searches of the 257,000-square-foot building — all 77 classrooms, plus all lockers, the gym, cafeteria and common areas — had been combed for any evidence of an explosive devise.

Nothing was found to be out of the ordinary.

“Which is a good thing,” Hayden said. “The initial threat ended up being a nonthreat.”

Attention already has turned to identifying the person or people responsible for making the unspecified bomb threat — walking up to the front door on the south side of the school, taping a handwritten message in the early-morning hours that would be discovered and then reported to a school administrator just as school was about to begin.

“We do have some video surveillance that is going to assist us here,” Hayden said.