Blendon Township police were on high alert this week after several Westerville City Schools students reported being beckoned to by a man in a car as they walked to or from school.
The first report came Feb. 18 from the Sunbury Woods subdivision.
An 11-year-old middle school girl was walking along Valley Quail Boulevard near Bitterroot Drive, on her way to pick up her younger sibling at Wilder Elementary, said Blendon Township Police Chief John Belford.
A man in a red van or SUV motioned to the girl to come near his vehicle, Belford said.
"She ran to a friend's house and called police," Belford said. "Our officers are in the area during the school crossing area in the morning and evening anyway. They checked the area and couldn't find anything."
Nonetheless, Blendon Township police have increased their presence as students walk to and from school each day, Belford said.
"We've been pretty much swarming the area in force every morning and afternoon since," Belford said. "As long as we think there's a possibility of a threat, as long as there's a credible threat, we're going to be there."
Officers also have been checking in on sex offenders registered in the area to see if any fit the descriptions or drive vehicles that fit the descriptions given by students, Belford said.
"We are treating it very seriously. It's being conducted like any other important investigation or report of a crime," he said.
Blendon Township police sent out text alerts to residents warning them of the incident, and Westerville City Schools sent letters home to parents of students in nearby schools, including Wilder Elementary, Blendon Middle School and South High School, reporting the incident and encouraging parents to talk to their kids about "stranger danger."
"It's all about building awareness," district spokesman Greg Viebranz said. "When there's an initial report, we need to heighten people's awareness to keep an eye out for any vehicles that fit a description or a suspect."
Students and their parents were on alert, Belford said, and two additional reports came in last week from students who said a man beckoned to them from his vehicle.
A boy walking home from Wilder Feb. 19 said a man beckoned to him from his car as he walked along Valley Quail Boulevard North between Carnation Drive and Sagebrush Court. No description of the vehicle or the man was given.
"We had multiple officers in the area, marked cruisers, plain clothes, canine. Nobody saw anything. The other children walking with this lad didn't see anything," Belford said.
After school Feb. 21, a girl reported that she saw man between 16 and 60 in red vehicle, possibly GMC SUV, motion toward her to come toward vehicle as she walked along Buenos Aires Boulevard, in the Huber Ridge neighborhood.
Again, police saw nothing in the area, Belford said.
Nonetheless, he said police welcome reports from anyone who sees anything suspicious, and he encouraged residents, parents and students not to get too hung up on the description of the man or the vehicle.
"We would rather have the kids overreact than not react enough. We're not going to take any chances with their safety," Belford said. "We're asking for everyone in the community, that if they see anything suspicious, they call it in right away."
Suspicious vehicles or people can be reported by calling Blendon Township Police's nonemergency line at 614-889-9494, and emergencies can be reported by calling 911, Belford said.
Belford also encouraged residents to sign up for the township's text-message alert system so they are immediately aware of any potentially dangerous situations.
Residents can sign up via the township's website, BlendonTwp.org.