A week after the discovery of a suspicious bomb-like device that caused Homer High School to be evacuated, Homer Police are still investigating the incident and looking to work with Kenai Peninsula Borough School District officials on how to better respond in similar situations.
“That’s definitely my goal, to get a meeting between us and school officials and hammer out what went right and what went wrong and how we can do this better in the future,” said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl.
No one was injured after the discovery of a suspicious-looking device prompted the evacuation of 370 students and staff at about 8:55 a.m. May 16. After the building was searched and no other devices found, classes resumed and the school was back on a normal schedule.
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater called the incident “unfortunate.”
“The district views it as an opportunity to review our processes for such an incident and to where necessary make improvements,” Atwater said in an email.
“As part of this process, the district looks forward to working with local law enforcement agencies providing input on this review.”
Shortly after the evacuation, police arrested a high school senior, Zachary Fraley, 18, and a 16-year-old high school student. Both were charged with first-degree terroristic threatening. The 16-year-old boy was later released to his parents.
The two are charged under a section of the statute that defines first-degree terroristic threatening “as knowingly sent or delivered a bacteriological, biological, chemical or radiological substance or an imitation bacteriological, biological, chemical or radiological substance and as a result caused evacuation of a building, public place or area, business premises, or mode of public transportation.”
Gee said Fraley admitted to him last Thursday morning that he had put a bomb-like device in the B wing stairwell.
Fraley’s Kenai lawyer, Kenneth Cole, entered a plea of not guilty at an arraignment last Friday morning. Magistrate Jennifer Wells released Fraley on a $1,000 performance bond — an amount she called “very low” for a class B felony. Gee did not allow Fraley to walk with his graduating class on Monday night, but he did fulfill his graduation requirements. Wells also told Fraley he could not visit the school campus until after the end of the school year on May 22.
Pegge Erkeneff, a district spokesperson, said Gee followed district policy and protocol in responding to seeing a suspicious object that looked like a bomb. Gee said he saw the device at about 8:25 a.m.
Robl described the device as a metal coffee can with wires protruding out of it and with a battery inside. He called it a “nonviable explosive device” and said nothing in it would have caused an explosion. The device has been seized for evidence.
“It’s got some weird junk in there basically,” Robl said.
Gee said he immediately secured the area around the device, and it was about 10 to 15 minutes after the suspicious device was discovered that Gee ordered an evacuation.
When Magistrate Wells asked the district as a victim if it had concerns about Fraley’s release, Gee took the opportunity to talk more about the incident and his response. Gee said he had been aware that graduating seniors often pull pranks during the last few weeks of school.
Gee said the two teens had been pulling a series of pranks on each other and that Thursday’s incident was part of that game.
“It was poor judgment, obviously immature actions on their part,” Gee said.
In that context, he evaluated the suspicious device and said he did not perceive it to be a threat. Gee said he followed district protocol and at no time did he feel there was a perceived threat.
“That’s why I did not call 911,” he said.
Robl said he’s still unclear about the timeline and how and when police were notified.
The school district said after the device was found, law enforcement was called immediately and the district emergency action plan activated. Police logs show a call received at 9:10 a.m.
Gee said because the device was in the B wing stairwell, a stairwell normally used in evacuations, he had to devise an alternate evacuation plan. A teacher stood at the stairwell to redirect students. Gee announced the building had to be cleared because of a “safety issue.”
Gee said he told a school secretary to call Homer Police Sgt. Lary Kuhns and tell him there was something in the building police needed to deal with and to use discretion in responding. Erkeneff said the school called for assistance to assess a suspicious item that most likely was a senior prank.
Gee said that he did not know if the secretary communicated to police that there was a suspected explosive device.
Robl said the call from the school did not convey a sense of urgency and that there was no mention of the word “bomb” or “suspicious object.”
Homer Police heard of the evacuation from Alaska State Troopers. By coincidence, an Alaska State Trooper lieutenant had been meeting with school district officials and heard of the evacuation when Gee called assistant superintendent Sean Dusick. The trooper lieutenant notified Anchor Point Post troopers of the incident to see if Homer Police needed assistance.
“There’s some real confusion here regarding the initial call. The school for whatever reasons did not call 911,” Robl said. “I’m very disappointed at how this initial call came in.”
When calls are made to 911 from a Homer phone number, emergency calls are routed to Homer Police dispatchers working out of the building a few blocks from the high school.
Robl said the Homer Volunteer Fire Department also was not called.
If high school officials had called 911, “It would have been an immediate, quick response to an unidentifiable device in the school,” Robl said.
Police also would have called the fire department and assisted with evacuation.
In a letter to parents, Gee said after the evacuation a teacher aide said she had found the device and, thinking it was a science experiment, picked it up and moved it to a corner of the stairwell. She didn’t think it was a bomb.
Gee said when Kuhns and other officers arrived, someone had pulled the item apart. Police picked up the item and Gee asked them to put it in a box when they went outside so as to not alarm people.
In an email, Erkeneff said district policy when a suspicious device is seen is to not touch or approach it and for school officials to be notified. No two-way radios or cell phones are to be used and the area is to be clearly identified and barricaded. She said district policy was followed in handling the device.
Robl said that if police had been notified, they would have made sure the building was safely evacuated, looked at the device at a distance and determined based on officers’ knowledge level if it was safe to handle.
“If it was determined to be unsafe to handle, we would have called a bomb squad from Anchorage,” Robl said.
School officials do not have training in handling explosive devices, Erkeneff said.
Gee said that when he worked at schools in Atlanta, he often had four bomb threats in a week.
In court, assistant district attorney Amy Fenske said that in light of the Boston Marathon bombings of April 15, the state took the incident seriously.
“Even if it was a school prank gone wrong, it’s very, very bad judgment,” Fenske said. “We encourage people to remain vigilant in reporting if they see something suspicious. Mr. Fraley allegedly placed what looked like a bomb in a school. That’s something that should never be the subject of a prank.”
Wells also mentioned the Boston Marathon bombings.
“What (Fraley) allegedly chose to do here is the type of thing that could spark an extreme response and really risk the overreaction of the community, the school the police.”
Wells said she appreciated that Gee resisted the temptation to overreact and that he acted in moderation.
In court, Gee described Fraley as “a good guy. Great character. Good family.”
Fraley’s parents and other family and friends attended the court hearing.
Fraley’s next court appearance is a preliminary hearing at 3:30 p.m. June 6 in the Homer Courthouse. If convicted of a class B felony, he faces up to 10 years in prison. The 16-year-old boy was referred to the Division of Juvenile Justice, a sanction Fraley also would have received if he had not turned 18 in late April. Unless a case is referred to criminal court, Alaska law keeps the identity of juveniles private.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.