HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Martha Vazquez left work as soon as she heard the George L. Hess School's emergency telephone message Tuesday.
"My mind immediately went back to December 2012, Connecticut," the Mays Landing mother said, referring to the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., in which 26 children and adults were killed by a gunman.
Tuesday's incident here would end without tragedy. Bomb threats that forced the evacuation of the Hess and Joseph C. Shaner schools and nearby Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse in Mays Landing eventually ended with no explosives being found, but they created several hours of fear and confusion for parents, as well as others at the schools and courthouse.
Standing on the sidewalk with other parents down the road from the Hess School, Vazquez said an initial message to parents stated only that police were at the school and no one was allowed to enter or leave.
"It was very non-descriptive," she said. "It doesn't tell you what's going on, it doesn't tell you if anyone was hurt."
The school went into lockdown before noon, after a call came into Cumberland County dispatch threatening Unami Boulevard and the Hess school, Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles said.
The call was transferred to Hamilton Township police, who responded.
A specific judge was also named as a target, but Balles would not say who it was.
Officers were just finishing clearing the surrounding area when another call came in — this time to the courthouse — saying the building would blow up in five minutes, Balles said.
“We felt very confident with releasing people from the courthouse into the area,” Balles said.
As multiple agencies cleared the areas and assisted with evacuations, a call came in threatening the Shaner School as well, Hamilton Township police said. That school also was evacuated.
About 1,500 students at Hess and 600 students at Shaner were evacuated. The courthouse was also evacuated and court was canceled for the remainder of the day.
Before the eventual all clear came at 4 p.m., Vazquez and two other Mays Landing parents —Gail Smalls and Melissa Viens — waited and watched from the sidewalk near the Hess School at about 1:30 p.m. They saw empty school buses drive past the barricade and eventually leave the school complex full of children, but they had no idea where they were headed.
"We don't know for sure, we just want to make sure the kids are OK and that the kids are being driven to a safe location," Smalls said. Vazquez added that police at the scene told them some details about the bomb threat.
As they stood just outside the police barricade they all — seconds apart — finally received a phone call from the school at 1:45 p.m. stating the children were taken to Davies Middle School. Parents were told to pick up their children after 2:30 p.m.
Students from the Shaner School were taken to St. Vincent DePaul Catholic School in Mays Landing.
Tara Tassone, of Hammonton, said she waited in her car outside Hess for almost two hours, having no idea what would happen or when she could pick up her 4-year-old son.
"They called about half an hour after I got out here, with no details," Tassone said about the first call. She first heard the information about the bomb threat after reading the news.
Hamilton Township police had sent out an alert saying that they were acting on information they received concerning the Hess School.
"All students and staff are safe," the report said. "However, no one is permitted inside the building until the situation has been resolved."
Just across the street, the Atlantic County Special Services School and the Atlantic County Institute of Technology initially sent out no information to parents at all.
ACIT and the alternative high school were on lockdown during the investigation, Balles said.
Superintendent Philip Gunther confirmed the schools were on perimeter lockout and that "there were no threats to ACIT or the alternative school. Students were dismissed at the regular time but afterschool activities were canceled."
But some parents were upset about a lack of information.
"I know nothing happened, but what if there was a legitimate bomb in that place that blew up. My daughter's school is right next door," said Helen Finn, of Smithville. She found out about the threat when Hamilton Township police released an electronic alert through the Nixle program, telling the community there was a situation at the Hess school and courthouse.
Finn worried about her 13-year-old daughter who attended the special services school, but was notified later that she was on the bus safely returning home. A phone call alert from the county school district was sent out around 4:15 p.m., Finn said. But, she added, that didn't compensate for the fact that, had something occurred, the school made no contact with parents.
At the courthouse Tuesday, the scene was relatively calm.
Manuel Leon, 26, of Millville, was attending drug court. The evacuation was preceded by fire alarms, and K-9 patrols were on scene.
But Leon said everyone reacted calmly to the orders, with visitors leaving through the front doors and court workers exiting the rear of the building.
Two high-profile cases have been unfolding in the courthouse. One involves the killing of an Egg Harbor City woman in 2010, allegedly to keep her from testifying in a 2009 shooting that involved one of the defendants.
In the other trial, Hiten Patel, of Egg Harbor Township, is accused of sexually assaulting seven women.
"I am as certain as certain can be that this has nothing to do with our trial," Patel's defense attorney, James Leonard Jr., said.
Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain would not comment on whether the threat was linked to either of the trials.
There will be no visible increase in security at the courthouse, Balles said.
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