Bomb, Arrests and School Plot Unnerve Small Michigan City

New York Times, May 18, 1999
By Robyn Meredith

PORT HURON, Mich. -- A third of the desks sat empty Monday at Holland Woods Middle School because students and their parents were afraid of what evils might prowl the school grounds after a bomb was found and four boys were accused of planning a Colorado-style school massacre here.

In what may be the most serious threat of school violence since the deaths of 14 student and a teacher in Littleton, Colo. last month, four Holland Woods Middle School students -- aged 12 to 14 -- were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder after they planned to imitate the Colorado shooting rampage, a school administrator said Monday. Two boys were arrested Wednesday and two were arrested Thursday. Hours after the last was in custody, a bomb was found outside the middle school the boys had allegedly planned to attack, he said.

The bomb was safely defused, and police are investigating whether there was a connection between the four boys who were arrested and the person who placed the bomb. Two 14-year-olds, Justin J. Schnepp and Jedaiah D. Zinzo, were charged as adults. A 12-year-old and a 13-year-old were charged as juveniles, and remained unidentified. The boys and their parents either declined to comment or could not be reached for comment. Police and prosecutors refused to release details about the boys' plans or the case.

The plot seems to be inspired by the attack in Littleton, Colo. last month. "There's no question that it was tied to that," said Thomas C. Miller, the assistant schools superintendent.

Police said that residents remain anxious. "We don't have the person that placed the bomb in custody," so parents and students are worried, said Capt. Brian J. Moeller of the Port Huron police.

Parents said they were afraid to send their kids to school. Terrie Kendrick said she and her husband had come to the school Monday because "our daughter's in there." They would have kept her home, but she will qualify for a $5,000 college scholarship if she maintains her perfect attendance record through high school, Mrs. Kendrick said.

Their son is at home. "He's scared," said his father, Steve Kendrick. "A lot of kids are really scared here."

That's an unfamiliar feeling in this quiet midwestern city of 40,000. Holland Woods Middle School is in a bucolic middle class neighborhood a few blocks from a beach on the St. Clair River, which separates Port Huron and Canada. Students often gather there to watch the Great Lakes freighters pass so close it seems you could touch them from the shore.

The 23 schools in Port Huron were closed Friday as a precaution after the bomb was found, and Monday they reopened. At Holland Woods Middle School, police and parents guarded the entrances, backpacks were banned and bags were checked on entrance, but some said students who came to school were in good spirits. Colleen A. Reilly, 42, who has a sixth-grader at the school and who works in the cafeteria, said a couple of kids told her "it feels good to have the school back to normal." Normal it was: lunch was hot dogs, corn dogs, or fish patties with corn.

She said the four kids involved did not seem like troublemakers, and that the arrests here were unexpected. "It happens anyplace, I guess -- look at that little town in Colorado," she said, referring to Littleton.

There have been a number of school closings and even arrests because of threats to schools nationwide since last month's attack in Colorado. "It becomes very real and very easy for a student to make a threat and for school and law enforcement officials not to know whether it is a prank or it is a serious threat," said June Lane Arnette, associate director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "Our godsend right now is that the end of school is in sight," she said. Most classes end next month.

Elwood L. Brown, the St. Clair County prosecuting attorney, said it was not simply a case of kids making idle threats. "I wouldn't have charged them with the seriousness of the crime if it wasn't that serious."

But perhaps the Littleton killings inspired something else here: a girl who knew of the plans told school authorities, who alerted the police.

"She's a hero," said Miller, the assistant superintendent.


In the Dallas suburb of Allen, Texas, school officials who last week said they were suspending the final two weeks of classes after repeated bomb threats said students would return later this week for staggered classes. Officials said Sunday that they only wanted to confuse those calling in the threats and were not canceling the rest of the year outright. "There has been a lot of miscommunication," complained a parent, Scott Gleason. "If they weren't really closing down, why the heck did they let this get publicized for two solid days?"

In West Palm Beach, Fla., Saturday's prom at Palm Beach Lakes High School ended early when a nail-studded pipe bomb was found hidden inside an indoor tree planter by the hotel's ballroom entrance. Police with bomb-sniffing dogs found nothing after a search of the high school Monday and classes began on schedule.

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