Helena Schools Superintendent Kent Kultgen says all elementary schools have been cleared by police after searches were conducted for suspicious items related to a bomb threat made Wednesday morning.
Police had not yet searched Ray Bjork Learning Center, which houses childcare programs, but Kultgen said those students were dismissed for the day.
The schools were evacuated after Helena Police received a phone threat in which the caller claimed to have placed a bomb in a Helena elementary school. Kultgen said police don’t believe the threat to be credible and cited the caller’s mispronunciation of the city’s name.
Nonetheless, Kultgen ordered the evacuation and requested authorities search the K-5 buildings and Ray Bjork Learning Center as a precaution.
“We wanted to mitigate any cause for concern,” he said. “It’s what’s best for students.”
The evacuations began just before 10 a.m. Students and staff were escorted to designated evacuation areas, where they waited for police to conduct searches, in some cases using K-9 units.
Each school has its own evacuation plan, Kultgen said. At Broadwater Elementary, students walked a few blocks to Carroll College. They were told to take their coats to participate in an evacuation “drill,” Principal Sue Sweeney said.
Kultgen said the threat referenced placing the bomb in a backpack, but the e-mail sent to school principals instructed students to carry their backpacks along during the evacuation, per Helena Police advisement.
A steady stream of parents arrived at Broadwater school to pick up children after receiving phone calls through the district’s Intouch notification system. Helena K-8 schools concluded at noon Wednesday for a previously scheduled professional release time.
The district was allowing parents to retrieve children early if they wished, Kultgen said.
Though the decision to evacuate was left up to the school district, the Helena Police Department sprung into action to perform regulatory sweeps of each school after the evacuation announcement was made.
"It was very vague, very non-specific," Capt. Curt Stinson said of the threat.
Stinson said authorities are investigating the threat, including any possible connection to the earlier call on Monday targeting Capital High School. On Monday, police searched the gymnasium at Capital High after a caller reported placing a bomb there. That search turned up nothing, and no one was evacuated.
Filu, one of the department's two K-9 officers, went into three elementary schools Wednesday to sniff out any suspicious packages.
"The rest of them we just basically searched manpower wise," Stinson said.
"When we go in there with just the information we had, it's just to see anything that's out of place," he said.
Helena Police searched the eight elementary schools within city limits and the Lewis and Clark
County Sheriff's Office dispatched deputies to search other county schools.
"The person was descriptive of what kind of package to look for, but not where," said Sheriff Leo Dutton. "As a precaution we notified all the (elementary) schools in Lewis and Clark County and we sent deputies to all of them.
"We sent deputies to Lincoln, Augusta, WolfCreek slash Craig, and I think they went to Canyon Creek," he said. "Then we went to Eastgate, Warren School, Rossiter School and Jim Darcy School."
St. Andrews Catholic School in Helena was also evacuated and searched.
Authorities conducted visual searches at all schools in East Helena, but evacuations were not ordered, according to Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.
“Police were on the spot within minutes and did a sweep of the buildings,” Whitmoyer said.
"There doesn't seem to be any credible threat inside our buildings," he added.
Recess in East Helena will be held indoors today, and the district temporarily instituted "precautionary admission restrictions" to buildings, Whitmoyer wrote in an e-mail to parents.
Dutton said it's important for anyone in any field of business to know their work space and check for unusual circumstances on a daily basis.
"It's important if you work in a school or wherever you work to be familiar with what is in your work area and know what is new today," he said. "If your work area has a package with no marking on it, that should raise your awareness.
"The City of Helena has a bomb dog, and we have an explosive ordinance disposal team. We work together," he said.