Parents: Kids' bomb chat was innocent
By DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001
TAMPA -- Late Tuesday, the telephone conversation between a 17-year-old sophomore at Sickles High School and his girlfriend drifted to a recent Time magazine article about school violence.
As they spoke in their homes, according to their parents, they wondered if it would be possible for anyone to bomb their school. Then they talked about how someone might actually do it.
They thought it was harmless talk.
What they didn't know was that someone was listening. Within hours, a neighbor who overheard part of their cordless phone conversation on a police scanner unwittingly set in motion a swirl of events that reveals much about the climate on school campuses these days.
Hillsborough sheriff's deputies searched the boy's house before 6 a.m. Wednesday, arrested him and his 15-year-old girlfriend, and held them overnight in a juvenile detention center.
Their names and addresses appeared in the Tampa Tribune. The St. Petersburg Times withheld their identities because of their ages and is not identifying the parents.
"I'm sitting here thinking my son's life is devastated over a phone conversation," the boy's mother said Thursday. "Why is this happening?"
"My daughter wanted to be a doctor," said the mother of the girl, a sophomore honor student. "How is she going to do anything now?"
Sheriff's and school officials stand by the decision, noting that talk about a bomb threat must be taken seriously. Officials recently announced a get-tough policy on threats that have disrupted schools like Sickles in northwest Hillsborough, which has been evacuated 10 times this school year.
Authorities assert that the teenagers said "they" would blow up the school, and spoke of using flares, gas and explosives.
But neighbor Maureen Norbury, 41, who overheard the phone call, doesn't remember the teenagers' conversation that way. She said Thursday that when she resisted describing the call the way sheriff's officials wanted, a deputy warned that she could be charged with making a false police report.
Sheriff's spokesman Rod Reder said he did not know what deputies had told her.
Norbury was watching late-night TV Tuesday and talking on the phone as her police scanner buzzed. Norbury bought the scanner recently to become a police dispatcher.
All of a sudden she heard the word "Sickles."
Norbury said she heard someone say, "Why can't you blow up the school?"
"Because it's too big," a voice replied, according to Norbury.
"You know how much that would take?" someone asked.
Norbury said she didn't hear the first part of the conversation and only picked up bits and pieces of what she overheard. However, she did hear one student's first name.
Just in case, she called authorities. A deputy came to her house around midnight to take a statement. He told her, "We'll never find these kids anyway," she said.
But they did. Early in the morning, they searched for every child by that name who lived near Norbury, and woke up school officials to search Sickles, where rumors about threats had been building for weeks.
Before 6 a.m., sheriff's officials knocked on the 17-year-old boy's door. His mom let officials search his room and interview him. Authorities escorted the boy and his mom to the school. There, students were being stopped and directed into a secure area as the bomb search continued.
At school, deputies questioned the boy and later the girl. Authorities say they admitted to the conversation, but their parents said they only acknowledged talking about bombs after discussing the magazine article.
Later, deputies told the boy's mother he would be charged with making a bomb threat, a felony. The parents said deputies told the parents they were under "political pressure" to enforce a get-tough policy on bomb threats.
The students also face a two-year expulsion from school.
"I felt like my son and her daughter were being used," the boy's mother said.
Maj. Gary Terry, who played a role in the arrest, "scoffed at any notion that this was done with political pressure," said Reder, the sheriff's spokesman. Reder did not know what deputies told the parents.
State Attorney Mark Ober, who has not yet decided whether to prosecute, said politics won't influence his decision. "We will do the right thing," he said.
In court Thursday, County Judge Raul "Sonny" Palomino Jr., a former School Board member, sounded skeptical about the case. He asked whether students putting on a play about a bomb explosion could be charged with a crime. He released the teenagers to their parents under home detention.
Even if formal charges aren't brought, "the damage is done," said Mina Morgan, the teenagers' lawyer. "Their name has been published."
Tampa Tribune Managing Editor Donna Reed defended the newspaper's decision to print the names and addresses, noting that they had been charged with felonies. "As a parent I understand their feelings," Reed said, "but threats against schools and bomb threats are a huge community concern."
While sheriff's officials defend the arrests, others question whether schools have gone too far responding to the fear about school violence.
"I call it the Columbine effect," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, referring to the shooting at Columbine High School. "An administrator can no longer afford to ignore potential threats even if it looks like it is not serious. It's not a good change, but it has changed."
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