Rumored bomb threat at Monument unfounded, district officials say
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from Great Barrington Police Chief Bill Walsh.
Great Barrington — It has been a rough few weeks at Monument Mountain Regional High School and Monument Valley Regional Middle School.
First, school officials scrambled in October to respond to anti-Semitic threats made against a Jewish student by a fellow student in the middle school. Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon subsequently felt compelled to pen an op-ed in The Edge about the school’s response.
Now officials are responding to persistent rumors at the high school of a bomb threat and a student who last week scrawled Arabic graffiti on a classroom desk in language that made other students and parents feel threatened.
In an interview, Dillon said he and other school officials could not find any evidence of a bomb threat, which was the most pressing concern. The inability to confirm the threat is compounded by the fact that no one has stepped up to report it directly.
“Nobody has come forward,” Dillon said. “Some have said they heard it from a friend. We’ve been investigating for weeks now and no one has been able to directly say they heard or overheard that. In the absence of confirmation, we have to assume it was unfounded.”
Roughly translated, sources say, the scrawlings mean “There is no God but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Dillon said the state police crime lab and the Great Barrington Police Department, both of which have been investigating, told him roughly the same thing and concurred with his assessment that there was no discernible threat.
“I’m not an Islamic scholar, but I don’t believe it to be a threat,” Dillon said.
In a statement later emailed to the Edge, Great Barrington Police Chief Bill Walsh said:
“Late last week MMRHS reported to us finding some graffiti on some desks and writing in a foreign language. We asked the State Police Crime Lab for an interpretation. Based upon their analysis we do not feel there was any threat to the school or community. Our schools are safe and we continue to work closely with school officials to keep them this way. People are always welcome to call us should they have any concerns.”
The images of the scrawlings, some of which were captured by cell phone cameras, quickly went viral on social media. Posting on the unofficial “Monument Mt. Regional High” Facebook page, Berkshire Hills parent Becky Negrini wrote: “We Berkshire Hills parents are facing a growing problem and concern about the safety of our children.”
Negrini added that, “The school’s response is wholly inadequate to address the threats and hate … and [the district needs] to acknowledge the real fear in students and parents.”
In his conversation with The Edge, Dillon explicitly acknowledged that fear. There is a perception, he said, “that kids are unsafe and we’re trying to be very responsive to those concerns.”
Since Friday, Dillon has fielded between 30 and 40 phone calls, mostly parents wanting to know if it’s safe to send their kids to school.
“I sent my kid to school,” said Dillon, who has enrolled his own children in the district. “Chief Walsh and Massachusetts State Police thinks it’s safe.”
Dillon said student assistance counselors have been counseling those who are afraid. He wasn’t sure how many students had availed themselves of this service but on a normal day about 15 parents call their children in sick. Today (Tuesday), that number had just about doubled.
Dillon acknowledged that the district should improve its response to such incidents: “We can probably communicate more directly and precisely, but we have to balance privacy rights with some sense of what the broader community needs to know.” Still, he added that, “Maybe people in the community have an obligation to not share incorrect or incomplete information.”
Citing privacy concerns, Dillon could not comment on what, if any, disciplinary measures have been taken against the student who wrote the offensive words on the desk.
But Negrini suggested that both the student who made the alleged bomb threat and the student who wrote on the desk had received in-school suspensions.
“Now, the student who made the bomb threat is being released this afternoon from ISS and is warning students not to come to school tomorrow,” wrote Negrini, a West Stockbridge resident and a nurse at Fairview Hospital, according to her Facebook profile. “I am, and I know several friends who are as well, too frightened to send my children to school.”
Other parents in the comment thread were crying out for harsher discipline and agreed with Negrini that they were not currently inclined to send their children to Monument.
Dillon added that the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee will meet soon to talk about how security at the district’s schools can be improved. The subject will be discussed briefly at this week’s meeting on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School. And it will be added to the agenda for the school committee’s Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, meeting.
The latter session will likely take place behind closed doors because school security is a valid reason for going into executive session under the state’s open meeting law. Attendees at the meeting, of course, are free to speak during the public comment session.
Over the years, Monument has endured other racially charged controversies. In 2016, an African-American Monument football player was threatended with a lynching by a white student for taking a knee before a game during the national anthem.
And last fall, one student wore a Confederate battle flag in the high school building during spirit week, prompting anger and outrage from parents and students alike.