School leaders grapple with reactions to bomb threats
When school officials received a bomb threat at Massachusetts’ Medford High School in February, they leapt to action. Well-rehearsed protocols included an assessment of the threat’s credibility, a search of the building, and consultations with local law enforcement.
In the end, judging the threat a likely hoax, officials continued classes and ended the school day normally, albeit with heightened vigilance. Learning was not disrupted, and many in the community were unaware anything was amiss until parents received an automated telephone call from the school that evening.
Yet, the incident did not pass without comment. In the days that followed, school officials received an earful from some parents, who sharply criticized the district for waiting too long to make them aware that their children had been under a threat.
“Some parents,” admits Superintendent Roy Belson, “were unhappy they weren’t informed earlier.”
Under the circumstances, such criticism was a relatively small price for the district to pay. Although nearly all bomb threats are a false alarm, such incidents exact a price: The potential for serious injury to students and staff demands a diligent response, which means the work of administrators and key staff is immediately disrupted.
If the threat is deemed serious enough, the school may be evacuated at the cost of lost instructional time and community panic.
There can be a hefty financial cost, as well, if police and other emergency services are deployed, and in some states, lost classroom time can impact state funding.
Earlier this year, when the Los Angeles school system closed its campuses in response to a threat of attack by gunmen and explosives, one estimate of the cost to the district and police department topped $29 million. Even for a small district, the deployment of police and a bomb squad in response to a threat can cost a community thousands of dollars.
All of this underscores the need to be well prepared for a bomb threat—particularly as the number of threats aimed at schools is on the rise. In the first four months of the 2015-16 school year, the Educator’s School Safety Network (ESSN), a non-profit group focusing on school safety training, identified more than 740 bomb threats aimed at schools, a 143 percent increase over the same period three years ago.
“This is something that has been under the radar for quite some time, but now there’s been this really exponential increase in some states,” says Amy Klinger, ESSN’s director of programs. “In Massachusetts, we’ve had such a dramatic rise … we’re averaging 10 to 11 bomb threats a day.”
There is, however, some good news on this front. School officials are increasingly diligent about planning and training for safety threats, and many are handling bomb threats with growing competence. “These threats have to be taken seriously, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned, we don’t have to totally disrupt what’s going on in schools,” says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO).
Responding appropriately—judging the credibility of a threat, ensuring the safety of students, and not allowing a false threat to disrupt the school day—is well within the capability of any school district, Canady says. It simply requires a well-planned and well-rehearsed set of procedures. “It’s all about preparation,” he says.
The protocols for handling a threat already should exist as part of a district’s emergency management plan. Hopefully, it was developed in partnership with local law enforcement and incorporates research and recommendations available from the FBI, Secret Service, and numerous school safety organizations across the nation.
A more likely failing, if one exists, is that these plans are gathering dust on a shelf, Canady says. Schools often are diligent about fire and tornado drills—and, more recently, about dealing with an armed intruder. However, bomb threats aren’t always given the attention they deserve. “One of the mistakes that is seen too often is a school working hard to write and develop a really good safety plan, but they never practice the components of it,” he says.
That oversight can lead to unnecessary disruptions to the school day when a threat is received—and can put students at risk even during a hoax, says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.
He tells the story of a “less seasoned” principal who received a bomb threat and rushed to evacuate the school before determining if the threat was credible. During the evacuation, an unattended autistic child wandered down the road. Thankfully, the student was found—but school officials and parents didn’t know his whereabouts for some time.
Such missteps are less likely if each school has a threat assessment team to determine the appropriate response to a threat, Trump says. Years of experience have allowed school safety experts to develop solid criteria for determining a threat’s credibility. A vague threat scrawled on a restroom wall, for example, is not as alarming as a phone call with an adult voice on the other end of the line. A vague threat is less worrisome than one that cites specifics about the school, an individual, or a motive for the threat.
A threat assessment can be completed relatively quickly and with some confidence, particularly if school officials stay in close contact with police and district officials, Belson says. As part of Medford’s safety protocols, school leaders go a step farther than most: They stay in touch with police and key community leaders on a weekly basis to review potential problems in the community.
“We want to know what’s going on in our environment,” he says. “Is there something festering out there in the community? Are there angry people or angry kids who might be talking about violence?”
During its bomb scare, Medford High School officials followed the district’s crisis management protocols and handled the incident efficiently, Belson says. The threat was delivered via an automated phone message—and it lacked any details. A call to the police for their input revealed that other districts had received a similar call. All of this strongly suggested the threat was a hoax.
With the building secured, school personnel, trained for the task, conducted a visual search of the campus and reviewed security camera footage, while students were kept in classrooms with a minimum of fuss, he says. Ultimately, school leaders felt confident the school day could continue safely.
“Our basic premise,” Belson says, “is to keep these situations as normal as possible and try not to excite people or create any kind of chaos.”
This low-key approach not only minimizes any disruption to the school day, it also defeats a major incentive of most threat-makers: to disrupt learning and upset the community, say school safety experts. Mitigating the visible impact of a threat also goes a long way toward discouraging repeated threats or copycat attempts.
Yet, when weighing an evacuation, school officials also keep in mind another, more sobering reason for caution: Taking students out of a secure building puts them outdoors—where a sniper or car bomb could await. It’s not a baseless concern, Canady says. In 1998, an 11-year-old assailant set off a fire alarm in a Jonesboro, Arkansas, middle school and then waited in ambush outside with his teenage accomplice and a cache of firearms. Four students and a teacher were killed as they exited the building.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong with an evacuation,” he says. “It’s completely necessary in some situations, but there are situations when you should just continue with classes … there has to be some thought given to the situation.”
It’s not clear that all school officials are prepared to make this decision. Approximately 30 percent of bomb threats studied recently by Trump ended in schools being evacuated.
Another 10 percent resulted in the school’s closure that day or the next.
That’s not to say all those decisions were a mistake, but, from Trump’s observations, at least some appeared to be made “in a knee-jerk manner, unnecessarily or prematurely, because school administrators were responding to the pressures of the crisis or community anxiety but not on the actual credibility of the threat.”
If school leaders are going to make this tough call, they need to ensure administrators have the training and necessary planning to evacuate students safely, he says. There should be steps in place to check the school grounds before moving students out of the building, and there needs to be a secure location for students to go.
Depending on circumstances, such as the age of children or the distance to a secure location, it might be appropriate to arrange for buses to pick up students rather than have them walk. Coordination with police and other emergency responders also should be well planned and implemented with speed and efficiency.
As school officials scramble to deal with the threat itself, they also should be prepared to address the reaction of parents and the media when news of the crisis reaches the community—particularly if that news leaks prematurely.
It can greatly complicate the work of staff and emergency responders if the school office telephone lines are inundated with calls, or parents show up to take their children out of school.
A district’s crisis communication plan should guide school personnel on when to make an announcement of the incident. However, it’s important for personnel to be ready to act expediently—through the traditional media, automated phone calls, and social media—to get accurate information to the community.
If an announcement must be made while the incident is still under way, “one thing that should be communicated is that the school is the worst place for parents to come to,” Canady says. “By doing so, they can block emergency traffic and unintentionally interfere with emergency responders.”
Once the immediate crisis is resolved, school officials may find their decisions criticized. Some parents will be convinced that continuing school despite the threat has put their children at unnecessary risk; others may criticize an evacuation as hasty and encouraging threat-makers.
Still others may criticize the school for denying parents access to the school to remove their children.
Such second-guessing made national headlines earlier this year, when nearly identical threats of a school attack—and explosives already planted—were emailed to school officials in New York City and Los Angeles.
But while New York City officials quickly concluded the threat was a hoax and continued classes, Los Angeles officials decided to err on the side of caution and closed down the district’s 900 schools for a day.
Officials in both cities stood by their decisions, but some questioned Los Angeles’ position, including New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who called LA’s decision a “significant overreaction.”
Such Monday morning quarterbacking goes with the territory, says ESSN’s Klinger. All school officials can do in these situations is make the best decision they can and later “look people in the eye and say, ‘Here’s why we chose this option, why it made the most sense. It’s not about flipping a coin. It’s a very deliberate decision based on a number of factors.’”
A savvy school leadership team also can use public concerns as an opportunity to engage parents and the community in a post-mortem of the district’s actions.
That’s exactly what the Medford schools did. As it happened, when the district’s latest threat was deemed a hoax, the school principal decided to wait to inform parents of the incident until the evening, when they’d be home to receive an automated phone call from the district. That seemed reasonable to school officials at the time, but parents saw it differently, with some quick to complain that they should have been notified immediately.
Rather than simply get defensive, school officials conducted a public forum to hear the views of parents, Belson says. But, at the meeting, school administrators also firmly laid out their stance—that their first responsibility is to deal with the threat to students, and that they didn’t want any distractions from that duty.
“We said we wouldn’t compromise on safety, but we did agree that—once we had stabilized the situation—we could respect the wishes of those who wanted to know sooner,” he says. “Every community has its own threshold, and you need to understand what the community expects of you. Then you’ve got to think collectively.”
Almost all bomb threats are hoaxes … and yet
The vast majority of bomb threats are nothing more than that: an empty threat. Yet, school leaders cannot ignore the reality that there are disturbed individuals in society who are ready to take matters beyond perpetrating a hoax.
There is little information on the actual risk that a bomb threat is real, but a now-outdated 2002 report, still cited by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, estimates that 5 percent to 10 percent of bomb threats involve real bombs. A review of bomb threats this year by American School Board Journal suggests that, while the number of threats received is climbing, the risk of an actual bomb being involved is significantly lower.
But, as school leaders must understand, there is always some risk. Last spring, two 19-year-olds were arrested after detonating a pipe bomb near an Indiana high school football field, and two Kansas high school students—ages 14 and 15—were arrested for allegedly planning to detonate pipe bombs at school.
A few months earlier, a pipe bomb was found in a dumpster near an Indianapolis elementary school.
The first—and still most deadly—school bombing in U.S. history was in 1927 in Bath Township, Michigan, when a local farmer secretly placed more than 1,000 pounds of explosives in Bath Consolidated School. After the explosion, the farmer drove up to the school and set off a second explosive in his truck.
The two explosions killed 38 elementary schoolchildren and six adults, and injured at least 58 others.
Another serious—and more recent—use of explosives in a U. S. school occurred during the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 that killed 12 and injured more than 20.
In addition to firearms, the two teenage assailants carried a number of pipe bombs and at least two fire bombs, several of which were thrown by the teens as they moved through the campus attacking students and teachers.
Searching a campus
Long before a bomb threat is received, a district’s leadership team should ensure that its emergency management plan prepares selected school personnel to conduct a search of a campus under threat.
This search does not mean school employees are moving around boxes or suspicious items, say school safety experts.
It means a visual search for anything out of the ordinary. A review of recommendations offered by school security organizations and law enforcement agencies offers some basic answers to questions school leaders may have, although a school’s emergency management protocols should be developed after extensive research and collaboration with local law enforcement.
What are we looking to find?
Most bombs are “of the simple pipe bomb form that is concealed in an ordinary-looking bag or some everyday object,” reports the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Bombs may be hidden inside a backpack. School staff also should be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, as well as for suspicious packages, such as those that are oddly shaped, stained, emit a strange odor, or appear overwrapped with tape or string.
Where do we look?
Bombs usually are placed in an easily accessible but out of sight location. Among the strategies recommended by various school security groups:
- Start outside the school, as bombs are three times more likely to be found outside then inside a school. Check the grounds and parking lot.
- Inside the school, the most likely locations for a bomb are a restroom or a student locker.
- Search trash cans, air conditioners, and window and door areas—both inside and outside.
- Inspect rooms slowly from floor level to high shelves and ceiling, including air ducts, window tops, and light fixtures.
- Look for signs of forced entry.
- Watch for objects that are inconsistent with their surroundings.
- Search for mailed or delivered packages that, as previously described above, appear suspicious.
What if something is found?
Never touch or move a suspicious object. Report the object immediately, and leave it to appropriate authorities to investigate.
Del Stover is senior editor of America School Board Journal.
Reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, August 2016. Copyright 2016 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.