A bomb scare that led to the evacuation of a Helena Valley school and lockdown of many other schools in the area Tuesday turned out to be a false alarm, authorities said.
Rossiter Elementary School's 490 students were evacuated and their parents were asked to pick up their children at an offsite location Tuesday morning after a suspicious object was found on the school's playground.
Initially, authorities incorrectly reported that a plastic bottle wrapped in tape had exploded on the school grounds before students and staff arrived. Neither the school staff nor the field officers who initially responded to the scene approached the bottle due to safety concerns, but a bomb squad later determined the bottle had not exploded and was not dangerous.
"It did not explode," Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said during an afternoon press conference. "There wasn't any kind of improvised device. But that's what it looked like."
Officials believe the plastic bottle filled with nuts, bolts, washers and an unidentified non-flammable liquid came from a construction site, Dutton said.
"We know who put it there, and it wasn't malicious," he said. "It was a homeless gentleman who had some other mental health issues and he thought he was picking up litter."
Rossiter staff called 911 at 8:21 a.m. to report the suspicious object, and the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office and its bomb squad, the FBI, the Montana Highway Patrol, the Helena Police Department, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives all responded to the scene.
Rossiter was closed for the rest of the day, and all other public schools and some private schools in Helena and East Helena were placed on lockdown before being cleared by law enforcement by 11:30 a.m.
Law enforcement also conducted sweeps of the state Capitol building and other state government offices in Helena, and authorities in Cascade, Broadwater and Jefferson counties responded to schools in their areas as a precaution.
Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream said he was happy with the way staff responded and was thankful for the response from parents.
“I thought parents were patient, they were kind, they were thankful, and I was quite honestly thrilled to be associated with the school district and certainly the Rossiter staff in how they handled this matter,” he said.
The Rossiter students were evacuated to the Little Red School House east of the school and east of the Frontage Road, which was described as an “alternate” evacuation site. Officers cleared the path to ensure the safety of students as they walked the short distance to the site, and buses were used to keep the children warm. All students were picked up within two hours, Ream said.
The district used its notification system to notify parents and guardians that they needed to pick up their children.
“I had a couple of parents say they heard about it on Facebook first. You almost always will,” Ream said. “Facebook will work faster than our communication because the folks that could Facebook it are taking care of children, and if it was the other way around then we’d probably have a problem.”
When asked how Tuesday’s evacuation would be explained to students, Ream said he met with Rossiter staff and the message will center on the importance of reporting anything suspicious.
“From an age-appropriate standpoint we’ll have those conversations,” he said. “The main message is going to be: If you see something, it doesn’t feel right, doesn’t look right, say something.”
School will resume at Rossiter on Wednesday as long as law enforcement deems the campus safe, Ream said.
Both Dutton and Undersheriff Jason Grimmis praised the school’s response and said the response from law enforcement was also warranted, given the information coming from officers at the site.
Dutton said his office shared updates with the community and media quickly to counter potential misinformation, and that the incorrect information he shared earlier in the day was based on the best information available at the time.
“I would say that we handled this appropriately,” Dutton said when asked what he would tell parents. “I would say that if you had a child and this was really a bomb, did we take this serious, and absolutely we did. I would say sorry you had to go through that emotion, but I would also say I’m glad our team here, local state and federal, acted in such a way that we brought this to a conclusion this quick.”
Several parents reported that they saw police vehicles at Rossiter before the emergency notification was issued. Dutton said at least one officer was there for the school D.A.R.E program and was not on campus to investigate anything.