Wednesday’s typical before school routine within the Portland Public School District was disrupted by a threat received by Ionia Central Dispatch regarding one of the district’s busses.
In a voice message sent to parents at approximately 7:20 AM this morning, PPS Superintendent Will Heath notified parents that the district had received a threat to one of the buses, and that all middle and high school buses had been sent to the high school and students would be held there in a safe setting. The message also indicated that the Michigan State Police and the Portland Police Department were actively investigating the threat. At that time, the district asked parents please to not rush to the high school to pick up their children and that additional information will be sent as soon as it was available.
The rerouting of the high school and middle school bus runs also resulted in a number of St. Patrick’s School students being transported to PHS temporarily.
In a second voice message sent to parents at approximately 7:37 AM, the district announced that Oakwood and Westwood elementary schools would be on a two-hour delay due to the threat. That second message also indicated that high school and middle school students continued to be held at PHS as the investigation continued. At that time, Heath stated, "No evidence of a real threat" had been found.
Special units from the Michigan State Police arrived at Portland High School to conduct searches of buses.
The Beacon’s Robert Lathers, who happened to be at PHS at the time, was able to speak with Heath around 8:47 AM. Heath stated, “A bomb threat came into Central Dispatch 911 early this morning. The Portland Bus Drivers were immediately notified and proceeded to unload all students from the buses.
Portland Schools implemented their ‘Critical Incident Management’ plan and safely secured all students currently at school or on the buses.”
Around that same time, the State Police search of the buses was been completed and the all clear was issued. St. Pats and Middle School students who were being sheltered at PHS were then transported to their respective schools.
The initial two-hour delay for Westwood and Oakwood was not extended.
Heath told Lathers, “This was a direct threat to our buses”. Not to the schools, but buses.
Heath said, “We spend a lot of time training for events like this. However, we can’t train our staff for every possible scenario that might occur, but we are trained to for situational awareness, to remain calm, and think as a team”. “Ideally, everyone remains calm. The more calm the more we can work to keep kids safe.” Heath added, “Our interaction with law enforcement including the Portland Police, Ionia County Sheriff and the State Police was awesome today.”
In a voice message sent to parents around 9:31 AM, Heath notified parents that the State Police and Portland Police confirmed that the busses had been cleared, and the district would be resuming operations as usual. Heath added that law enforcement had received a confession, a suspect was in custody and charges were pending.
At 11:14 AM, Heath sent the following to parents via email.
“I want to thank everyone for their patience today as we worked through this safety concern. Portland Public Schools was notified this morning of a threat that was called in to 911 that specifically involved our buses. The district is fortunate to have a close working relationship with the Portland Police Department as well as the training and support from our safety consultant Critical Incident Management. Our staff immediately went through our procedures to ensure student safety. Everyone was calm and worked as a team.
All of our drivers were notified immediately and directed to report to the bus garage or the high school depending on their location. All of our buildings were placed on secure mode at that time. Our buses were removed to a safe distance from the school as we investigated. From the beginning of this incident the Portland Police Department, Ionia County Sheriff's Department, and the Michigan State Police were involved and actively supporting our schools. MSP was able to quickly report to do inspections of the buses and give as an all clear. The investigation progressed rapidly and the Portland Police were able to give us an all clear to resume our scheduled day. I have been notified that the suspect has confessed to making the call and is currently in custody pending charges.
As soon as the district was given the all clear we were able to transport Middle School students from the High School over to the Middle School and St. Pats students to their building. Our elementary buildings were placed on a two-hour delay because of the investigation and the delay in our ability to transport students. Because of the fast response and quick investigation, we were able to get all of our buses back out on the road in time to transport the elementary students. Students will have a regularly scheduled day for the rest of the day. High School and Middle School students are following their normal bell schedule.
Please remember that when we have incidents like this and others it is important to have updated information in our system. Today I utilized the emergency setting in School Messenger to notify staff and parents. When I do that it calls every number in the system and is a phone call only message. A normal non-emergency call will go to selected numbers using your preferred method. You can update your information by calling the office of the school(s) that your child attends.
Today we utilized what is called a secure mode. We use this mode to prevent student movement through the building as well as visitor traffic. If we are in a secure mode and you are in the building, we will direct you to return to the office. Unless we are directed differently by the authorities, visitors coming to the building will normally be allowed to access the office but not the rest of the building. Today was a little different as the authorities asked us to not release anyone until after they were able to complete the beginning stages of the investigation.
Please understand that when we are in an emergency situation we automatically go to our parent reunification process. What this means is that if you want to get your child from the school you will need to provide picture ID and be on their emergency contact list. We will handle parents one at a time and ask that you are patient and calm. We fully understand your concern as many of us have our own children in our schools. It is important that we do not make a situation worse. We are organized to transport students and handle procedures to ensure safety. When parents report to the building we need to divert staff from other areas to assist parents. This is not normally an issue if you work with us and are patient. Please do not make a situation worse. We all want the same thing and that is for every student and staff to be safe. Follow our directions, wait as requested, and give us time to ensure that we have accounted for and assisted all students.
I cannot give enough praise for all involved today. Our staff and the authorities worked as a team to quickly take care of this situation. I am very proud of our training and support from Critical Incident Management and our relationship with the authorities. I want to especially thank our drivers not just for today but for every day. They have a difficult job on a good day and their focus and dedication to safely transport students today was outstanding.”
At the time of this posting, the name of the subject in custody has not been released.
Photos by Robert Lathers.