Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pitt 'relieved' after arrest - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

From March: People waited along South Bellefield Ave. after being evacuated from the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh because of the bomb threat.

Weeks of continual bomb threats interrupted classes, frayed nerves and disrupted sleep on the University of Pittsburgh campus, but the upheaval during the spring semester apparently won't keep students from returning this fall.

Among those who actually endured the repeated threats, "there seemed to be a sense of greater connection to Pitt, so that when we look at measures like freshman-to-sophomore retention, we actually think those numbers will be as high as they ever have been this fall," Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg said Wednesday.

Where Pitt may have been damaged, he said, is in recruiting freshmen. The threats occurred as many prospective students and their parents were making final visits to campus to decide among their top university choices.

"I can't quantify it, and I'm not sure it will be significant, but it would surprise me if there is not some kind of impact on the entering freshman class this fall," Mr. Nordenberg said.


His assessment, 12 days before fall classes start, came at a news conference during which law enforcement officials discussed indictments charging a resident of Dublin with emailing bomb threats targeting Pitt and other locations.

Freshman move-in begins Tuesday. John Fedele, a Pitt spokesman, would not estimate the expected size of this year's incoming class, saying numbers are not yet final.

The threats identified in the indictments include a subset of what Pitt said were 52 bomb scares day and night, some against multiple buildings, that prompted 136 evacuations of academic, administrative and residential buildings from February through April.

Mr. Nordenberg expressed gratitude to law enforcement and others who gave Pitt assistance and said it was fortunate that investigators could announce a break in the case as the new school year was set to begin.

"I'm very relieved," he said.

An estimate to date of $300,000 that it cost Pitt to respond to the threats includes only quantifiable expenses such as hiring extra security guards, police overtime and procurement of bomb detection equipment. Mr. Nordenberg said the figure is expected to grow and that Pitt will have to decide if it is practical to seek restitution.

Pitt police Chief Tim Delaney said the bomb threats, although a tax on resources, brought out the best in the campus and broader community. His officers and dogs spent countless hours clearing buildings in response to each threat.

"It stretched us to the max. But every time we got tired, another law enforcement agency would come in and support us," he said.

The frequency and duration of the threats were uncharted territory for his officers, but Chief Delaney said they adapted and got the searches and evacuations down to a science.

Other universities that might one day face a similar threat are looking to Pitt as an example of how their police might respond, he said.

"The bottom line is, the kids were always our main interest," the chief said. And those students left encouraging reminders that they were grateful for the officers' efforts.

At the height of the threats, officers clearing part of the Towers dormitory complex arrived to find a pizza box full of Milk-Bones for the police dogs, a gesture that helped them forge ahead.

At one point during the threats, Chief Delaney, frustrated, stood before television cameras and implored the perpetrator to contact him personally.

"He's got other people asking him things now," the chief said Wednesday.

The school's retention numbers may have been aided by contact academic advisers had this summer with students affected by the threats, in particular freshmen and sophomores living in residence halls. The approaches were to gauge their concerns and learn of any unresolved issues related to spring studies or fall registration, provost Patricia Beeson said.

Students interviewed Wednesday expressed relief.

Hannah Bitzer, 19, who will be a sophomore, moved out of her residence hall and back into her family's home in Fox Chapel when the threats prompted too many evacuations to bear. She said her friends' grades suffered and many worried, "what's to prevent this person from starting back up again when the school year starts?"

"If this is the guy, I am absolutely relieved," Ms. Bitzer said. "We can start off the school year fresh with this behind us."

Roman Perdziola, 19, who also left his residence hall when it came time to study for finals, said he found it hard to focus on schoolwork when threats gripped the campus. Every evacuation was more nerve-wracking, he said.

As the threats went on, "I thought maybe they found a way to never get caught," Mr. Perdziola said. He said it's "bothersome" that officials have identified no motive or connection between Mr. Busby and the university.

"You want to put a reason to it. You want a justification for it."

Bill Schackner: or 412-263-1977. Sadie Gurman: or 412-263-1878.

First published on August 16, 2012 at 12:00 am

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