Parents and school administrators are frustrated with recent threats that have closed schools in the Machias area. "I find it to be very concerning," says Danielle Parker, who has two children at Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School and one at Washington Academy. "It's still happening."
"We've missed four days [this school year], but it seems like more than that," says Scott Porter, superintendent of AOS 96. "We're doing everything we possibly can to solve these cases."
The most recent threat to affect Machias public schools came December 14. Porter declines to comment on the content of the threat or how it was received because he doesn't want to compromise the ongoing investigation or give out information that copycats could use. He says said school officials take all threats seriously but a closure is "not automatic." Threats are first assessed to determine how credible they are. Officials don't want to give the perpetrator a sense of satisfaction or control by needlessly closing the campus. When officials determine the campus should be closed due to a threat, police clear the buildings before reopening them to students and staff, he says.
"There needs to be some level of trust that administration in Machias isn't going to open a campus until it's safe," Porter says. "We're going to do everything we can to keep students safe, and we won't open the campus until we're sure it's safe."
Parker says she understands school officials are busy handling the threats and their other administrative duties, but she wishes they would provide more information. "I just feel like if a parent wants to know ... it should be readily available to them," she says. "We are all left to wonder who is handling it, what is being done." Porter says he is willing to discuss some of the details with parents one on one, but he must be careful about what he releases to the school community as a whole.
After the most recent threat December 14, Porter sent a letter home to parents. "Although I cannot share the content of the current threat due to the ongoing investigation," the letter says, "I can assure you that all police agencies are working diligently to solve this case." School officials are working with Maine State Police, Machias police and members of the Washington County Sheriff's Office, the letter says.
"I also want everyone to understand as we move forward there may be times that police are present on school grounds to ensure that our students, staff and parents are safe," the letter says. "I am sure all of you are frustrated as I am with the threats that have occurred over the past few months. I am doing everything in my power to bring these threats to an end. In the meantime, please be patient as we work through the current situation."
Porter says police were able to solve one case of a threat made to the schools in early October and arrested a juvenile, and he hopes other cases will be solved as well. He acknowledges that the fact that threats continue is "deeply frustrating" for everyone, including students, teachers, staff, administrators and parents. "Basically you feel like you're being held hostage," he says. "It feels like an act of terrorism."
Parker, a business owner, says school closures are difficult for parents juggling jobs and childcare issues. Although a sudden change of schedule is inconvenient for her, it is manageable. Some parents don't have backup daycare providers, however.
Parker praises Washington Academy for regularly communicating with parents about the threats and providing a little more detail than officials in Machias schools. In a note to parents December 18, Washington Academy Head of School Judson McBrine told parents he had discovered an email bomb threat that evening. "Most on‑campus activities were wrapping up for the evening by this time, and we removed a small group of students from the Gardner Gymnasium and the fitness center," McBrine's statement says. "I contacted the Maine State Police, and the school has been searched and cleared. Again, the email was generic and not specific to Washington Academy, but we took the threat seriously, nonetheless. The Maine State Police Computer Crimes Unit is working with our tech coordinator Carolyn Harrington to track the origin of the email bomb threat." McBrine could not be reached for comment.
Parker says her children are not overly concerned about their safety, though younger children might be more afraid. Porter acknowledges the threats are more difficult for younger children.
In addition to threats, Rose M. Gaffney students recently suffered two significant tragedies. Teacher Asia Wells was killed in a motor vehicle accident November 26, and Rose M. Gaffney student Keagan Stevenson was killed in a motor vehicle crash that took place December 14. "There's been a lot of trauma, and there are going to be a lot of children who are upset," Parker says.
"We've been really sensitive to those tragic events," Porter says. "We're offering as much support as we can." Porter encourages any parents who believes their children's needs are not being met to contact the school.