Helena was thrust into an unnecessary panic Tuesday after authorities incorrectly reported to the media a homemade bomb had exploded on the Rossiter Elementary School playground.
The school was closed and its 490 students were evacuated before they were reunited with their parents and guardians at an offsite location. As local, state and federal officials dealt with the situation and law enforcement searched for additional explosives, every other public school and some private schools in Helena and East Helena were locked down.
Officers also conducted sweeps of the state Capitol building and other government offices, as well as schools in Cascade, Broadwater and Jefferson counties.
News photos showed some Helena parents anxiously waiting to catch a glimpse of their students at the evacuation site as other moms and dads consoled their frightened children. Thoughts and prayers poured in from social media as headlines about the explosion in Montana’s quaint capital city dominated headlines throughout the nation.
Then they learned it was a false alarm.
Authorities announced during an afternoon press conference that the information they provided earlier in the day was wrong.
It’s difficult to understand how a plastic bottle filled with hardware could be mistaken for an improvised explosive device that had detonated, and we certainly hope authorities were not calling it that on a hunch.
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But if the law enforcement experts who are familiar with explosives were truly convinced that a homemade bomb had exploded on the school playground, they and the media had an obligation to inform the community.
As Sheriff Leo Dutton mentioned in his Tuesday morning press conference, those who need to see proof of every detail before hearing from law enforcement should be prepared to wait. It often takes days, weeks or even months for authorities to complete their investigation, and people can’t afford to wait that long when life and property are at stake.
Unfortunately, that means both law enforcement and the media will sometimes report inaccurate information during a crisis that must be corrected later. But that’s a much better option than putting the public at risk by withholding information about a credible threat, which would be inexcusable.
Despite all the unnecessary strife it caused, Tuesday’s bomb scare gave law enforcement and the school district an opportunity to test their emergency procedures and make adjustments as needed.
We hope they will never need to enact those protocols again, but local officials are better prepared for an actual emergency as a result of this unfortunate situation.
This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board.