After a bomb threat: How Hampton Roads courthouses recover as disruptions continue

When a bomb threat forces the evacuation of courthouse, the disruptions aren’t just to the docket.

It can throw a wrench in major life plans, as well.

Cynthia Morrison, circuit court clerk in Portsmouth, said all daily happenings at the courthouse are put on pause once a threat has been made against the courthouse, including the work in her office. That means even marriages can be postponed if couples plan to obtain a license on days when there are threats.

“When we have a bomb threat, if someone needed any of those functions, they are out of luck, as well as court proceedings,” Morrison said. “If you were a military person who was going to be deployed, and for some reason you needed to get married that day, and you’re stationed let’s say over at the Naval Hospital and we’re closed, you’re going to have to find another circuit court clerk’s office somewhere.”

Last month, Hampton courthouses faced bomb threats that disrupted proceedings twice in as many days. A man was arrested in connection with one of the threats — within hours of the buildings’ evacuation.

In December, other courthouses across Hampton Roads faced bomb threats that shut down operations, including Portsmouth. Morrison noted that just because a courthouse closes does not mean that the work just disappears.

“It’s an inconvenience to not only to (the public), but to the court,” Morrison added. “The court is having to reschedule the cases or not being able to complete the case on time because we’re in the middle of a jury trial. In a bomb threat, we have evacuate that building until the building is clear.”

This could take at least a couple hours, and sometimes, the courthouse closes for the rest of the day.

Macie Allen, spokesperson for the commonwealth’s attorney’s office in Virginia Beach, said each court in Virginia Beach’s system has its own protocol for rescheduling.

In General District Court, cases involving prosecutors are rescheduled by the attorneys together. The commonwealth’s attorney’s office controls the docket for criminal cases in Circuit Court, and after a threat closes the courthouse, each case is rescheduled by the prosecutor after consultation with defense attorneys. If a courthouse is evacuated but staff is able to return to work, the courthouse typically proceeds with the regularly scheduled docket for that day.

Number of threats have increased

According to a 2021 explosives incident report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, 1,136 bomb threats targeted various institutions, businesses and residences across the country that year — a jump from the 818 in 2020. Of those, 57 were against courthouses, and another 61 were against other public or government facilities not including schools.

Numbers come from incident data reported to the Bomb Arson Tracking System and open-source information through the Technical Resource for Incident Prevention. A report for 2022 has not yet been released. In 2021, there were six “bombing incidents” in Virginia.

Schools had the largest chunk of bomb threats. According to the ATF, 517 threats were made against schools in 2021, and the majority targeted middle and high schools. In addition to bomb threats, more than 4,900 “suspicious packages” were reported nationwide.

In the past few weeks, B.M. Williams Primary School in Chesapeake has faced multiple bomb threats, including one that prompted an evacuation of the school. Students were later sent home for the day.

Kenneth Trump, a national school security expert and president of National School Safety and Security Services, said threats against schools can be divided into two categories.

The first involves someone who has a grievance or agenda against the school. This could be a former employee, student or parent who aims to disrupt the school day. The other involves “swatting,” or often computer-generated or online threats against a school or individual.

Swatting threats, Trump said, can come from other states or even international suspects and can involve multiple school districts receiving threats consecutively. Because callers can use servers that mask their origin, they tend to be harder to solve.

“Those threats become much more complicated,” he said. “The good news is that law enforcement is much more in-depth than tracking the digital footprints — whether it’s a threat of threat that originates locally, or the threat is part of swatting threats that gets more complicated and takes longer.”

Authorities in Chesapeake announced Tuesday that a teenager in Chesapeake was charged with crimes related to a threat toward Oscar Smith High School last fall. According to the Chesapeake Fire Marshal’s Office, a former student of the school faces two misdemeanors counts of threatening to bomb as someone under the age of 15 and two felony counts of threatening death or bodily injury to persons on school property.

The threats in question were made Oct. 25 and 26, the first of which prompted a lockdown and the second caused the building to be evacuated.

On Feb. 24, three students at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach were arrested and charged with making online threats against a teacher at the school. School leadership said more arrests could come.

“Those responsible will face very real consequences, up to and including expulsion from school as well as criminal charges,” principal Claire LeBlanc said in a statement.

In July, a slew of threats targeted Historically Black Colleges and Universities, community colleges and other schools across the U.S. — including Eastern Shore Community College, Tidewater Community College, Virginia Peninsula Community College, Regent University and Norfolk State University. No explosives were found on any of the campuses.

Trump said informing students of the consequences of making threats is one way local leadership can reduce the number of disruptive threats against a school. He also noted that how a school responds can also lessen the impact of disruptions to learning.

“They need to have threat assessment, teams protocols and training in place, so that they can evaluate the threats when they occur,” he said. “The key thing is to assess and then react, don’t react and then assess. Too often we’re seeing schools that will automatically evacuate or close for one or more days, and then say that they’re doing so out of an abundance of caution.”

Eliza Noe,