A teacher seeing hand-drawn pictures of apparent weapons in the notebook of a student at Cedar Creek High School triggered a multicounty police response that ultimately led to the student’s arrest Tuesday on weapons charges, a school official said Wednesday.
“In reality, we followed what we’re trained to follow,” said Steve Ciccariello, the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District superintendent. “I’m thankful that we had a staff member that (saw something that) caused her some concern, and that she had the sense to report it to school officials. These are things that teachers receive training on all the time.”
The incident at the school in Egg Harbor City was one of several recently in local schools, including an arrest of a Mainland Regional High School student for an alleged text threat, added security at Absegami High School following unfounded reports of a Facebook “hit list” and baseless rumors of a planned shooting at Southern Regional High School.
All seemed to be a reaction by anxious students and jittery school administrators to last week’s mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 people dead, including 20 children.
Asked if the Mainland incident was a reaction, district Superintendent Tom Baruffi said, “It is too coincidental for it not to be.”
Stafford Police Lt. Joseph Giberson said it was common for similar rumors to surface. Giberson described the Southern Regional incident as “a conversation that has gone haywire that turned to rumors and spread like wildfire.”
Ciccariello said the community now is more alert to potential threats, but it did not change how the district would have handled the Cedar Creek incident.
On Wednesday morning, he praised the teacher who reported the drawings and said Cedar Creek High School was “business as usual.” He did not name the student or discuss his disciplinary record, but he said the student was not in conflict with anyone. He added, “I wouldn’t expect this type of behavior.”
After the district contacted Galloway police, investigators from that department and the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office went to the boy’s house in the township. There they said they found electronic parts they did not identify and unspecified chemicals that could cause an explosion when mixed.
The student was charged with possession of a weapon, an explosive device, and was placed in Harborfields Detention Center, police said.
Bomb-sniffing dogs from as far away as Atlantic City and Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester counties were brought in to search the school, but police said no bombs were found.
Cedar Creek opened in September 2010 as a magnet school with programs focusing on engineering and environmental sciences and specializing in hands-on learning.
Students said teachers and staff at the school on Wednesday didn’t address the incident during classes.
“Nothing really happened,” said freshman Angel Andujar, 14, of Egg Harbor City.
Allie Hare, 17, added, “Everyone’s kind of blowing it (the incident) out of proportion.”
Hare, a senior, said people who knew the boy said he was a science-oriented student who was not particularly outgoing.
“He loved science. That was just his thing,” said Hare, of the Lower Bank section of Washington Township. “I guess, with everything happening, with the world ending tomorrow, that this was seen as a threat to the school, I suppose.”
At Mainland, police arrested a 15-year-old female student after a “false public alarm” caused by a text message was traced back to the teen.
“It was reported that it was circulating around school (via text message) that there was going to be a shooting at the school on Friday,” Linwood police said.
The teen was charged with creating a false public alarm, a third-degree crime. Third-degree crimes are felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
Police said she was released into the Juvenile Diversion Program, pending court.
School Superintendent Baruffi said the text message at issue was initially sent to a few students, who sent it along to others students.
“We have no choice but to investigate and make sure it stops. Any message that can be construed as a threat to students” will be investigated, he said.
Baruffi sent a message through the school’s notification system around 11 a.m. to parents informing them that the police investigation into the “false public alarm” had led to an arrest. “There was no danger,” Baruffi said. “The purpose (of the message) was not to alarm everyone. It was the opposite, to give comfort.”
At Stafford, Giberson said in a Wednesday statement that police and school officials investigated what the department described as “unsettling rumors” at Southern Regional, finding they have no merit. He said authorities would continue to pursue any reports regarding the situation.
The department said it would increase its police presence to monitor the situation and reassure students of their safety.
The Vineland Police Department said Wednesday that it is investigating rumors of violence at Vineland High School for Friday.
"It is unfortunate that individuals are spreading rumors of violence in an attempt to cause fear and panic in the wake of the violence in Newtown, Conn," the department said in a press release.
Anyone with information about the rumors is urged to contact the department at (609) 856-691-4111 or text tip to (VPDTIP) at 84741
Staff Writers Anjalee Khemlani, Dave Simpson and Donna Weaver contributed to this report.
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