ELLSWORTH, Maine — Students at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School were evacuated Tuesday morning after a bomb threat was discovered in a boys’ bathroom.
The students were brought to Ellsworth High School after the message was discovered, said Ellsworth police dispatcher Patricia Marshall.
“There was a written message found in a boy’s bathroom indicating there was a bomb in the student locker,” Marshall said. “They’ve checked the lockers and found nothing. As a precaution they removed the students to the high school and [they were] let back in after a more detailed search.”
In the commotion, changing reports about whether parents were allowed to pick up their children and bring them home left many upset and confused about why their children, at least for a time, were being held.
Around 11 a.m., students were walked single-file, escorted by their teachers, to the high school. A bomb-sniffing police dog was called in from the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, according a Facebook post by the Ellsworth Police Department.
By 1:30 p.m, the school was cleared with no bombs found and students were bused back to the elementary-middle school.
Many parents were upset, after learning about the bomb threat, by rapidly changing policy about whether they could pick up their children at the high school and go home.
Initially, the police had told parents through Facebook that they could pick up their children at the high school. But many parents became upset when they arrived at the high school and were told their children could not leave.
One parent said she was even told that she couldn’t go inside to see her son.
“They said everyone is accounted for and that we can’t take our kids because it might be the one who did it,” said Nora Garland of Fletcher’s Landing. Her son, Ethan, is a first-grade student at the elementary-middle school.
Garland said she first heard the news of the bomb threat on Facebook, and was very upset to be told that not only could she not leave with her son, but that she wouldn’t be allowed to see him.
“I almost fainted when I saw the news,” she said. “Then I got here and a woman with the school said I couldn’t even see Ethan. They said everyone was happy, but I know my son is terrified.”
At one point a small crowd of parents had gathered outside the high school, only to be told by staff that they weren’t being let into the building.
Despite Garland’s claim otherwise, Ellsworth Elementary Middle School Principal James Newett said that parents had been allowed to see their children, and that he offered to escort any parents into the school to check on their child.
“They’re eating lunch and singing songs,” he said around noon. “I’ll take a parent in to see their child, but at this time they cannot leave.”
Newett said the instruction to hold the children came from the Ellsworth Police Department, who wanted to make sure that if a child was connected with the threat, he or she would be available for questioning.
But Police Chief John DeLeo said the order to hold the kids did not come from the police. He said the department simply passed on whatever information about pickup arrangements they got from the schools. Obviously, he said, there was some sort of miscommunication.
“There was some confusion about what could or couldn’t take place,” he said. “Normally a couple days after an incident like this, everyone will sit down and debrief about what happened, what went right, what went wrong. But I’m not quite sure where the confusion came in.”
Regardless of who ultimately made the call, the decision to hold the students was reversed again by noon, and parents were allowed to leave with their kids, but not before many had already been turned away.
After the threatened school was cleared by police around 1 p.m., the remaining youngsters at the high school were bused back to the elementary-middle school to finish their day as normal.
An investigation into who wrote the bomb threat on the bathroom wall is ongoing, DeLeo said.
“The school has some video of people in the hallways,” he said. “We’re looking into it.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.