Delco college is still closed after threats

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A vacant campus that normally would be filled with staff and students in Media. All five DCCC campuses, in Delaware and Chester Counties, are closed while an e-mail threat is investigated.

In what is believed to be the longest disruption of a college campus since the Virginia Tech shootings, the Delaware County Community College system will remain shut for another day as teams of investigators track the author of a menacing e-mail.

Eight faculty members received the e-mail Thursday that said the writer was "stressed out" and planning to bring guns to the Downingtown and Exton campuses yesterday or today, said Ralph Burton, police chief in West Whiteland Township, home to the Exton branch.

"We're assuming it was a student," said Burton, "but we can't rule out other possibilities at this point."

More than a dozen investigators - from Burton's department, the FBI, the Chester County Detectives, and the Brandywine Regional Police Department - have been investigating the case.

Agents are tracking the perpetrator's complex e-mail trail through the Internet, and have found the network where the message was sent on Thursday.

The e-mail arrived just 10 days after the shootings at Virginia Tech, where 32 students and faculty were slain by a troubled student, who then killed himself. Unfounded threats and hoaxes at schools and colleges have surged since the Virginia shootings.

Delaware County Community College locations should reopen tomorrow after the expiration of the e-mailed threat, Burton said. DCCC president Jerry Parker would say only that reopening tomorrow was possible. Students should check the campus Web site throughout the day, he said.

"We're making the decision day-by-day," Parker said yesterday. When students do return, there will be a large police presence on each of the five campuses, which are in Delaware and Chester Counties.

Parker said he hoped the school would be able to hold final exams next week, as scheduled, and keep its May 17 commencement date.

"That's our goal," he said.

DCCC enrolled a total of 10,106 students for the spring semester and employs 701 full-time and adjunct faculty members.

Police disclosed new details about the e-mail yesterday, as the campus shutdown attracted national attention.

Those new facts, provided by Burton, include:

The sender set up an account on e-mail provider Hotmail.com just before sending the note, and has not used the account since.

The account's user name contained the last name of a community college student; that student was questioned "at length" Thursday, voluntarily surrendered his home computer, and is not considered a suspect.

The e-mail was sent over the Chester County Library system, but with wireless public Internet access available at the county's 18 libraries, the sender could have used a laptop in any one of the library's parking lots. That makes tracing the message that much more difficult.

Names of the professors who received the e-mail were listed in the order they appear on a college Web page directory, making it likely that the sender took them randomly off that page. "That makes you think he didn't know them personally," Burton said.

Although threats have closed other college campuses across the country sporadically, authorities said the DCCC case appears to be the most extended disruption of a college schedule since the Virginia Tech shootings April 16.

Burton said that more than a dozen investigators from his department, the FBI, the Chester County Detectives and the Brandywine Regional Police Department have been working daily on the case, mainly conducting interviews.

He said more than 150 staff members from the two Chester County campuses have been shown the e-mail and asked whether anyone had a student who might have written it.

"The investigation is continuing," Burton said. "We're doing everything we can to identify this person."

In addition to the police presence, Parker said, extra security measures would be in place when students returned. He did not elaborate but said he hoped they would be "a temporary phenomenon."

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is seeing one or more reports of school or college-related threat a day compared with about two a week before the shootings in Blacksburg, Va., said PEMA spokeswoman Maria Finn.

Three public school threats were reported to PEMA yesterday, one in Lancaster County, one in Beaver County, and one in Chambersburg, she said. All proved to be unfounded.

Also, police closed down Penn State's commuter campus in Abington on Sunday, and bomb-sniffing dogs searched every building in response to a threat, scrawled on a restroom wall, that police didn't even believe to be credible. The campus reopened yesterday.

Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus Inc., a national nonprofit organization concerned with campus safety and victims rights, said the number of school threats - and the level of the schools' response - has risen since the Virginia Tech shootings.

The Delaware County Community College threat Thursday was "the first incident that we've seen where the campus has been completely shut down," Carter said.

Another occurred Friday in South Florida, where police in the city of Hollywood discovered a threat against students scrawled on a piece of cardboard at a construction site near one of the campus buildings, and Broward County Community College and two campuses of Florida Atlantic University were closed.

The campuses reopened Saturday as police traced the threat to a mentally ill man who was already in jail.

Hollywood Police Capt. Tony Rode said that shutting down the campuses was the right call.

"It's the price we have to pay," Rode said, "for living in post-911, post-Columbine, post-Virginia-Tech world."

 


Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 610-313-8173 or jshields@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer John Shiffman contributed to this article.