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Managing Bomb Threats and School Safety, Security
High-profile school violence cases and other national incidents, along with easy access to formulas for homemade bombs on the Internet, have contributed to concerns about bomb threats, suspicious devices, and homemade bombs in schools, on school grounds and on school buses.
Historical and Recent School Bomb Threat Incidents
A number of high-profile incidents involving bombs and bomb threats took place prior to the 1999 Columbine High School attack showed a trend we identified and trained schools to prepare for at that time:
A January, 1999, explosion in a high school locker in Kansas City sent 11 students to the hospital.
An irate parent took the deputy superintendent and an associate superintendent of a California education office hostage in late November of 1998. The standoff resulted in police killing the parent, who had a gun and seven bomb devices as a part of his siege.
Ten bombs, fireworks strapped to aerosol cans, forced the closure of a California elementary school.
One Maryland school district experienced more than 150 bomb threats and 55 associated arrests in one school year.
Up to a pound of ammonium nitrate was brought to school by a Nevada middle-school student.
Eight boys confessed to making three homemade bombs, two of which were placed at a Minnesota elementary school.
The attack at Columbine High School triggered bomb threats and attention to the need for school and police officials to assess threats versus automatically evacuating as a best practice.
Immediately following Columbine, schools across the nation experienced a spike in bomb threats and related incidents. While the spike in these type of incidents leveled off in the months and years following Columbine, there are still a number of incidents each school year involving bomb threats, suspicious devices, plans to use bombs in school violence plots, and the actual use of explosives. School buses have also been the target of terrorist bombings in the Middle East, so it would be wise for school officials to include school bus and transportation facilities in their bomb threat and suspicious device planning and training.
Recent bomb threat trends
More recently, bomb threats and threats of other violence have been made in methods ranging from written threats on school bathroom walls to electronic threats sent via the Internet through international proxy servers. For example:
In late 2011, a series of bomb threats including threats sent via international Internet proxy servers disrupted the Orange Public Schools in Pepper Pike, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. School officials chose to shut down the schools for three days as school and law enforcement officials investigated. Schools reopened under heightened security and substantial anxiety in the school-community.
In April 2012, the University of Pittsburgh experienced a series of bomb threats that resulted in school officials choosing to repeatedly evacuate the school and heighten security measures. Like the Orange Public Schools incident, anxiety ran high in this university's school community.
In 2013, bomb threats shut down schools in the Cleveland area, including in Strongsville and Olmsted Falls, as school officials evacuated and shut down school following threats.
Managing School Bomb Threats, Suspicious Packages and Evacuation Issues
Unfortunately, many schools historically handled bomb threats and suspicious devices rather poorly. School staff ranging from custodians to principals, and even some security and former police officers, have reportedly picked up suspected devices and moved them around school property, delayed calling police, and taken other dangerous steps which could have possibly been prevented through adequate training, crisis planning, and related measures.
One major issue facing most school districts is whether to evacuate schools on bomb threats. Many school bomb threats have been made by students seeking to disrupt the school day and to get out of school. Still, all threats must be treated seriously and thoroughly investigated and managed.
The best practice, supported by federal law enforcement explosives experts, is for schools and police to assess threats rather than automatically evacuating schools. Many schools across the nation do not automatically evacuate their schools upon receiving a bomb threat. Decisions and protocols on these issues should be determined by school officials and their public safety (police, fire, etc.) partners as a part of their emergency planning process and prior to an actual incident.
In general, the best practice followed by most school and public safety officials is to evaluate each incident on a case-by-case basis and determine whether to evacuate accordingly. We are concerned with the number of schools around the country immediately jumping to evacuations, often by pulling the fire alarm without the fire department knowing that such a procedure is being used for bomb threat evacuation rather than an actual fire.
Another major issue for schools involves conducting of searches following bomb threats. Many teachers and support staff have been advised by school and public safety officials to conduct searches of their area for suspicious items when a bomb threat is received by the school. The rationale for this request is that the facility users (teachers, support staff, administrators, etc.) are most familiar with what does and does not belong, and therefore are best equipped to recognize what is and is not suspicious where public safety officials are not that familiar with the school and individual classrooms.
School employees are understandably hesitant to this request, but it seems that the tension on this issue typically centers around what is meant by a "search" by school staff. Public safety officials typically mean a visual search, not a physical search involving moving around boxes or suspicious items. And public safety officials certainly do not want school officials touching or moving suspicious items detected by a visual search. Instead, they simply ask employees to look around and report suspicious items or things out of place so public safety responders can then follow-up with those particular items.
School safety and emergency preparedness guidelines may include strategies such as:
Treating each and every threat seriously. Work with local law enforcement authorities from the jurisdiction of your individual school to determine protocols for evaluating bomb threats and procedures for evacuations. Develop procedures for actual evacuations (short and distant evacuations, alternative sites, transportation procedures, reunification with families, etc.).
Providing training to school personnel, including support personnel such as bus drivers, custodians, and secretaries, who are likely to encounter bomb threats and homemade bombs.
Incorporating issues related to checklists, search procedures, crime scene management, evacuations, and recovery into training and crisis guidelines.
School bus drivers and transportation supervisors should play an integral role in bomb threat and suspicious device training. Plans and training should include issues related to bombs threats focused upon school buses, suspicious devices on buses and at transportation facilities, and actual explosions aboard and around school buses. Transportation facility and bus security issues should also be built into school security plans.
Place caller ID on school phones to help identify bomb threat callers. Consider blocking incoming calls made from phones using caller ID block. Some schools have put messages on their school phone voice mail directories indicating that calls may be recorded for security purposes.
Assess the impact of student use of cell phones from school campuses. A number of cases have occurred nationwide where bomb threat calls were made by students using cell phones.
Assess the location of school pay phones and consider reducing, limiting, and/or relocating the number of pay phones should they exist on campus. Students have been known to make bomb threat calls and fake 911 calls on these phones.
Avoid evacuating students into school parking lot areas to reduce the risk of potentially exposing them to additional explosive devices placed in vehicles and/or easily hidden in parking areas.
Recognize that some bombers, terrorists, and related offenders who plant bombs also place secondary explosive devices to harm first responders and others after an initial bomb is located and/or exploded.
Consider extending the school day or school year to make up for lost instructional time may be another necessity in managing such threats. In fact, discussions of such strategies alone has reportedly resulted in decreased bomb threats at some schools.
Maintain filters on school computers to reduce the risks of students gaining access to bomb-making web sites. Recognize, though, that many tech-savvy students are able to bypass these filters. Also secure science lab chemicals and custodial cleaning materials to reduce risks of unauthorized access to chemicals for making homemade bombs.
Have a well-developed crisis communications plan to get accurate information to parents, the media, staff and students.
Additional School Bomb Threat Resources
Ken Trump addressed school bomb threats prior to Columbine in a February 1999 issue of School Planning and Management Magazine article you can download here: How to Handle Bomb Threats and Suspicious Devices. More recent information on school bomb threats is available in Ken's latest book, Proactive School Security and Emergency Preparedness Planning.
School officials should talk with local enforcement to obtain documents similar to this federal Bomb Threat Checklist or the former ATF Bomb Threat Checklist.
The U.S. Department of Justice's Community Policing Office published a 2005 guide entitled Bomb Threats in Schools which discusses problem-solving school bomb threat issues. The federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agency worked with education officials to put together a free CD-Rom and threat plan web site on interactive school bomb threat planning.
For additional information, contact Ken Trump.