Offshore source may be behind bomb threats to schools, police say

By RNZ.co.nz

Police assistant commissioner Bruce O’Brien says police are working hard to understand and identify the origin of the threats being made to schools around the country.

Police car driving past through Tawa

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Police began investigations after at least a dozen schools in Masterton, Kaikōura, Greymouth, Queenstown, Levin, Whanganui, Rolleston, Takaka, Geraldine, Dunstan, Ashburton and Palmerston North were targeted today.

It was the second time this week serious threats have been directed at schools.

A similar string of bomb hoaxes disrupted North Island schools on Tuesday.

Police outside Cambridge High School

Police respond to a bomb threat incident in Cambridge earlier this week. Photo: Supplied / Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod

Today some chose to evacuate while others went into lockdown and resumed classes later in the day.

“You can appreciate the disruption that’s not only caused to the students but obviously the operation of the school and then the distress to not only the students but also their parents as well, so we’ve been working really closely with the schools to provide that reassurance,” O’Brien said.

The majority of phone call threats were referring to an explosive device, which was why police believed the calls were coming from the same person, O’Brien said.

Asked if the caller was demanding anything, such as money, he said he did not want to go into specifics, however, the calls were threatening harm to a degree that schools had no option but to take them seriously.

He said he was not 100 percent certain they were coming from offshore, but police were looking into that possibility.

In 2017 a similar threat came from offshore and that person was held to account.

O’Brien told Checkpoint police would work with international partners to make sure the caller is punished.

“I would just ask anybody if they do have any information to contact police.”

He was keen to reassure parents and students that police were doing everything possible to locate the source and they were also working closely with schools to ensure they had clear procedures in place to handle the emergency management of such threats.

“The threat level is low, however, we remind the schools to take the appropriate action when they do receive these types of threats.”

Waitaki Girls’ High School principal Liz Koni confirmed the Oamaru school was among those to receive a threat and it evacuated as a result.

“We received a hoax phone call to the school office today, just before midday,” she said.

“The police were immediately contacted and we evacuated to the rec centre. Evacuation went very smoothly; students were well behaved and settled.

“The police arrived and searched the premises – their response and support was excellent. At 1pm we were given the all clear and students were able to return to their classes. Parents were notified immediately after we returned to school and the remainder of the day was unaffected.”

‘Unprovoked, distressing’

Bomb threats made against schools around the country in recent days originated with an overseas cyberbot, the Principals’ Federation says.

President Cherie Taylor-Patel said the hoaxes were distressing for those affected.

She had spoken to Education Secretary Iona Holsted about the threats.

“The ministry has said that their understanding is that this was actually a cyberbot coming in from overseas. It apparently happened a couple of years ago, so it has happened before but obviously it’s not something that anyone is prepared for and it’s something that no one wants to have happen.”

She praised the efforts of schools to evacuate their students and maintain calm in the face of the threats.

“Today’s incidents were really unexpected, unprovoked and really distressing for those communities involved,” Taylor-Patel said.

Minister of Police Chris Hipkins had a message for people ringing in bomb threats to schools: Don’t be idiots.

He said the police and Ministry of Education had plans in place to deal with threats.

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