School administrators appear to be evacuating and closing schools more often in response to bomb threats, but such actions are not always consistent with best practices for bomb threat response.
Moving students away from the school and sending them home often meets the emotional security needs of some educators and parents. But doing so could actually make kids less safe.
Premature evacuations and closings can make students less-safe
When principals evacuate a school, they and their teachers lose control and supervision capabilities. Although they know where they are evacuating students from, they do not know exactly what riskier situations they may be evacuating them into when the students leave the confines of their school.
Prematurely and/or unnecessarily evacuating and closing schools may, in the minds of school administrators and staff, solve the problem that day. Doing so not only disrupts the educational process, but also puts school leaders at high-risk of facing subsequent threats if one of the threat maker’s intentions is to interrupt learning.
Best practices call for school officials to work with police and other public safety partners to assess threats on a case-by-case basis rather than having a practice of automatic evacuation and closing of school. Although this best practice was heavily reinforced after the Columbine High School attack in 1999, it has increasingly appeared that this best practice needs to be revisited and reviewed by current-day school administrators as well as some of their police and other public safety partners.
- Olmsted Township (Ohio) school officials evacuated Olmsted Falls High School for a bomb threat on October 16, 2013. A student said a school official announced a fire drill over the public address system and told students to take their belongings with them. They were evacuated to the bleachers and then to a nearby school from where they were sent home, and their school was closed for the day. Roughly two weeks later, the same school received another bomb threat and the school again sent students home early.
- On September 30, 2013, Strongsville (Ohio) school officials closed preschools, elementary schools and the high school after finding graffiti painted on the front of Strongsville High School which included the word “bomb.”
- Students were dismissed early from Padua Franciscan High School in Parma (Ohio) on October 1, 2013, after graffiti written in a girl’s restroom said the school would be blown up and referenced a future date.
- Officials at Holy Name High School, a Catholic school in Parma Heights (Ohio), evacuated students for about two hours after a bomb threat note was found written on a bathroom wall on October 17, 2013.
- In November of 2011, emailed bomb threats directed at Orange High School in Pepper Pike (Ohio) resulted in school officials choosing to shut down the schools for three days.
Incidents similar to these have occurred in recent years in schools across the nation. They often result in increased anxiety within the school and with parents, as well as parents challenging school officials on what they perceived to be delayed and/or inadequate communications on the incidents
A number of school principals are also pulling fire alarms and/or announcing fire drills as the method to evacuate their schools during bomb scares. We have had a number of fire chiefs over the years cringe as such plans were never shared with them. Most importantly, when they received a fire signal from a school they believed it was for a fire, not a bomb threat evacuation.
Best practices and established protocols provide cognitive, not emotional, responses
School administrators, school crisis teams and their first responders should work together to develop threat assessment protocols for evaluating bomb threats. They should certainly respond as warranted when there is an obvious or imminent safety threat. But they also should avoid premature evacuations, avoid evacuating using signals that could create confusion (such as pulling the fire alarm for a bomb threat evacuation), and develop crisis communications and social media strategy and plans for more effectively communicating with students, staff, parents and the community.
I recently interviewed with our local CBS news affiliate to bring some attention to best practices with the hope that school and police officials in our area would pause and reassess their recent trend towards quickly evacuating and closing schools. Best practices are also discussed in-depth on our web site page on school bomb threats, which also has links to documents and a free CD packet resources on the topic.
Nine out of 10 school bomb threats may turn out to be unfounded. But no principal wants to be number 10. Following best practices and having guidelines in place prior to an actual incident will help school leaders and their first responders respond cognitively, not emotionally, if they do receive bomb threats to their schools.