Four students have been arrested in connection with the bomb threats made to Van Buren schools during the past month, a Van Buren Police Department spokesperson said Thursday.
During a press conference, Detective Jonathan Wear said arrests were made on four of the seven bomb threats that have been committed since March 13.
All seven of the threats were deemed unfounded after the schools were searched thoroughly by police.
Suspects arrested were students at the schools where each hoax was committed and were arrested before the end of the day, said Wear, public information officer with the Van Buren Police Department.
Arrests were in connection with threats made March 14 at Van Buren High School, March 25 at Northridge Middle School, April 8 at Parkview Elementary School and April 10 at Van Buren Freshman Academy.
Since the four suspects are juveniles, their names have not been released. All four are facing felony charges of communicating a false alarm.
"We want to stress the importance that this is a serious thing; it is not a joke," Wear said. "It’s a felony any way you look at it."
Three other incidents of hoax bomb threats are still under investigation, Wear said. Included is the original incident March 13 at VBHS, which seemed to spark a rash of bomb threats throughout the area.
Cedarville, Alma, Greenwood and even Southside High School in Fort Smith have had false bomb threats during the past month. Related arrests have been made in Alma, Greenwood and Fort Smith.
Also still under investigation in Van Buren is another threat made March 25 to Northridge and one made to the high school March 27.
With each threat, school officials have had to evacuate students and staff from the buildings, sometimes for several hours.
At least one of the threats have occurred during end-of-the-year testing, and the school was required to report it to the Arkansas Department of Education, said Kerry Schneider, deputy superintendent with the Van Buren School District.
Schneider spoke on behalf of the school district during the conference Thursday, calling the hoaxes "a major disruption to the process" of educating.
"It creates an undue hardship on the student," Schneider said, noting that while testing the kids are already under stress.
Schneider pointed out that the false alarms also caused parents and staff to be unnecessarily concerned.
While each of the seven threats were determined to be false, Schneider emphasized that the school district has not and will not take any threat to students "lightly."
"There will not be a time when we don’t take it seriously and evacuate the students," Schneider said.
Schneider later added that the first responsibility of the school district is to protect its children and employees. Van Buren school officials and police are working together to try to prevent future incidents, he said.
"Extra sets of eyes," including staff and Van Buren school resource officers, are being placed in areas of the schools where it is thought there is a high potential of having another bomb threat, Schneider said.
While Van Buren schools have video surveillance, all threats have been found on the walls of student bathrooms where there is no surveillance.
It can be difficult to spot one suspicious person or action when the school has 1,400 students, Schneider said.
Police and school officials also are reaching out to students and parents to help with the problem, Schneider and Wear said.
Principals and teachers have discussed the repercussions of making a bomb threat at the schools, in large and small groups of students, Schneider said.
"We’re trying to relay to our students the seriousness of making a threat like this," he said.
School officials follow discipline policies that have more than one option for punishment based on the severity of the infraction, up to expulsion, Schneider said. Expulsion means the removal of a student from any school in Arkansas for up to one year, he said.
Within the law, communicating a false alarm can include sending a letter, calling in or writing a message of a false threat, Wear said.
Possible punishments for a juvenile include immediate incarceration in a juvenile detention center for up to 90 days, probation for a period of 24 months, community service, electronic monitoring, home detention, mental health assessments, fines, counseling, intensive supervision and tracking, boot camp, restitution for emergency response time, and costs.
Adults facing the same charges can be sentenced to up 6 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
"Even if we don’t make an arrest today, we have a three-year statute of limitation on this crime," Wear said. "It may be that we arrest someone after they leave high school."
According to Arkansas Statute 5-1-109, police have up to 3 years to file charges on the bomb threat incidents. Wear expects arrests to be made in the remaining cases.
"Out of all seven of these, we’ve learned something new about each one," Wear said. "It is kind of helping us to understand the nature of what’s going on here and help us solve these."
Additionally, Van Buren police are asking parents to speak to their children about the consequences of committing such a crime, Wear said.
While it is important to educate students and the public on the consequences of committing a bomb threat and the actions being taken to prevent further incidents, Schneider said the school district will not be creating any special programs to address the problem.
"In my opinion, the less attention you draw to it the better," Schneider said.
School officials are looking to make some general adjustments to security before the next school year, Schneider said. They are working with the juvenile office, VBPD and the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office to that end, he said.
"We are forming a plan and seeing what we can do to beef up security in our buildings," Schneider said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation also is documenting and tracking all bomb threats within the Van Buren School District, Wear said.