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Ferreting out disguised bombs latest in school officials' duties

Thursday, June 24, 1999

By Michael Logan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Principal Michael Panza knew something was amiss.

A videocassette tape labeled "Whiplash" could have been a driver's education video, but the strange and sinister sounding title seemed out of place on a librarian's desk at Springdale Junior-Senior High School.

His hunch proved correct.

"Whiplash" was a bomb, rigged to detonate when moved or picked up. The device was one of five planted by Sgt. Robert Clark, director of the Allegheny County police bomb squad.

Clark's goal: Educate the educators about explosives in a one-day school safety seminar at Springdale yesterday. The lesson comes at a time when many are concerned about school violence and possible repeats of the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

"Our schools are becoming battlegrounds," Clark told the group of 40. "On those battlegrounds, you as educators are the front lines."

Clark said teachers and administrators are best able to identify bombs, as they are the ones most likely to know when something is out of place in the school environment. He said educators must be constantly on the lookout for explosives, not just when a bomb threat is called in.

"You are searching your schools every day that you're there," he said.

Although Clark awarded Panza an 'A' for spotting "Whiplash," he noted that the principal failed to find four other explosives, one of which was hidden in a hollowed-out fire extinguisher.

Still, Clark said, Panza's mock bomb search of a librarian's desk was more thorough than any that would have been performed by his bomb unit.

Clark said there was no way to fully guarantee the safety of schools from bombs.

Panza said the point of the lesson was well taken. He said the exercise taught him to have a heightened awareness "for things that are out of place."

Part of yesterday's seminar was designed to help educators identify explosives in all their shapes and guises. Clark's teaching aids included a collection of defused bombs recovered by his unit over the years.

Some resembled ticking clocks and dynamite sticks portrayed in movies. Then there were innocent looking devices, such as an eight-track cassette tape of Billy Joel's 1980 recording, "Glass Houses."

Picking up the cassette triggered a buzzing sound, indicating that an explosive had been set off.

Other defused bombs were housed in cereal boxes and toys.

"If any of those things were on a school shelf, an inquisitive child would pick it up," said Kristin Yurcisin, a guidance counselor with Penn Hills High School.

Clark said the most effective way to guard against bombs was simple, everyday housekeeping. "If someone leaves a backpack in the library, it's in the dumpster by midnight," he said.

He said the county bomb unit has recovered just one or two bombs from school-age children within the last year, and no device was found on school property.

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