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Officials stress vigilance in detecting threats to security

The Brownsville Herald  (03/07/2003)

By Jennifer Muir

While returning from a school safety summit Wednesday in Austin, Brownsville Independent School District Police Chief Oscar Garcia learned of a security breach on his turf.

A bomb threat scrawled on a girls‚ bathroom mirror prompted a full evacuation of Pace High School Wednesday afternoon a situation Garcia had reviewed how to handle just hours earlier. Officials didn’t find a bomb, and students returned to class 30 minutes after evacuation.

Although Garcia wasn’t at the scene, he knew the proper officials would be standing by. He knew students would be evacuated if necessary, and he knew how officials would search the perimeter.

The training has always been in place, but he said it somehow seems more important after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We train our employees to be vigilant and look for suspicious activity,” the chief said. “But now we have a heightened awareness. We are more visible and check with the administration and report valid threats to (the Bureau of) Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.”

The hoax, which warned students that a timed bomb would engulf the school at 1:30 p.m. and wished them “good luck,” is not an uncommon occurrence in schools across the state, Texas School Safety officials said Thursday.

And although the federal Department of Homeland Security has not created a specific protocol to deal with these situations, school officials are taking the threats a little more seriously, according to Judy Renick, director of the Texas School Safety Center at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.

The 4-year-old center, funded by the governor’s office, began sending a comprehensive crisis management plan to every superintendent in the state two years ago, before terrorists attacked the nation on Sept. 11.

“Our position has not changed at all, but I think school districts have been more aware of emergency-response plans since Sept. 11,” Renick said.

For Garcia, that training also enables his office to determine which threats to take seriously and which are simply childish attempts to cancel classes.

“We won’t evacuate unless we believe it is a credible threat,” said Garcia, who noted law enforcement officials and school administrators coordinate to make those decisions. “There is protocol in place, though for security reasons we don‚t discuss that.”