Responses to the Problem of Bomb Threats
Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.
The following response strategies provide a foundation for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.17
General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy
Responses may be divided into two categories: (1) preventive responses aimed at reducing the likelihood of bomb threats and (2) immediate responses to a bomb threat should it occur. Your preventive responses will have a significant impact on how you and the school respond should an actual bomb threat occur. Just as installing sprinkler systems in public buildings prepares for a fire that has a low probability of occurring, so establishing a system for dealing with a crisis and managing the public space of the school in a secure way will minimize the impact of a bomb incident should it occur. Many of the responses outlined below are those that the recipients of the bomb threat (most likely school personnel) must implement. Thus, your prime responsibility is to establish a close working relationship with the schools to ensure that they implement the responses that are appropriate for their particular situation. So it is worth repeating: you will be unable to implement many of the responses listed here unless you can cultivate a close and trusting relationship with your local schools and school districts.†
† There are many resources to guide you in how to develop a law enforcement-school partnership; The most comprehensive is: Fostering School-Law Enforcement Partnerships (Atkinson 2002).
Specific Responses to Bomb Threats in Schools
Prevention and Harm Reduction
These responses are designed (a) to reduce the impact of a bomb threat should it occur (b) to prevent a bomb threat from happening in the first place and (c) to reduce the probability of a rash of bomb threats occurring.1. Developing a bomb threat response plan. You must work with the school and school district to develop an overall response plan should a bomb threat be received.This plan should also be coordinated or preferably included within a disaster or crisis plan that most likely already exists in your community, and involves police, firefighters, emergency response teams and so on.†
A bomb threat response plan should fall within the school's, the town's and county's overall crisis plans. It will avoid making serious mistakes18 and ensure that the response is systematic and avoids panic. The school will need to form a response team whose function will be to formulate the response plan, and, should an incident occur, play designated roles specified in the plan. The school will need your help to form this team and develop the plan because it must be composed of not only selected teachers, school administrators, staff well acquainted with school premises (cleaning and maintenance staff), but also local police, fire and emergency services representatives. (See Appendix C for a detailed listing of questions to ask when you meet with school administrators and teachers to develop the plan.) Do not assume that, because the school district or school has a response plan, this is sufficient. A 2001 survey found that, although the majority of school districts had response plans, less than 40 percent had provided training of more than one day for the response team, and there was little attention to keeping the team and plan up to date.19 Many districts had not conducted any drills to test the response plan. Considerable training and refresher courses (since there is continual turnover of staff) are needed for members of the response team and others with whom they would have to deal should a crisis occur, particularly in regard to the different roles of the response team members, lines of authority and leadership.20 The online web course developed by The Dept. of Homeland Security, Office of Domestic Preparedness in conjunction with Energetic Material Research and Testing Center at New Mexico Tech. is an easily accessible and useful training tool. It is offered for free at: http://respond.emrtc.nmt.edu/campus/.
† There are many crisis plans available on the web and elsewhere. The most comprehensive is Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities published by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (2003).2. Developing a threat reporting system. You should work with the schools in your jurisdiction to agree on what level of threats should be reported to the police. Should every threat that implies an explosive device—even those made obviously in jest—be automatically reported to the police? Reporting a threat to the police sets off a whole series of events that transfers the responsibility for the event from the school to the police and others external to the school, especially should the media become involved. If you have a close and trusted working relationship with each school, you should be able to work out a set of rules for collection of bomb threats and other incidents of violence, and a set of criteria for deciding when such incidents should be reported to the police. That decision will depend on an assessment of the risk posed by the threat. (See box below on risk threat levels.) A distinction should also be made regarding how such information will be put to use. If you are able to develop a research use for these reported incidents, without their reporting to you automatically setting off a full emergency response, for example, open sharing of incidents may be a feasible alternative, leaving it to the police to decide whether immediate intervention is required.
† See the POP Guide on School Vandalism and Break-ins.4. Controlling access to the school building and premises. The security survey will identify points of access to the school premises. Advise the school, if necessary, to limit the number of entrances so that access can be monitored more easily, and require all visitors to register at the school's main office. Consider ways to make it easier to identify who does and does not belong in a school. School uniforms make it easier to differentiate students from non-students although they may not be feasible for all schools. Limit vehicle access to campus, or if not possible, situate parking lots far enough away from school buildings that any bomb that explodes inside a vehicle will not harm people in or near the school building.
† The introduction of call tracing considerably reduced the incidence of obscene phone calls (Clarke 1997). Publicizing its availability on all school phone lines may cause students to think twice before calling in a threat. [Full text ]
‡ On December 20, 2002, Poughkeepsie, New York public schools received two bomb threats called in from local convenience stores; 1200 students and 100 staff were evacuated. Another threat came after Christmas break, which resulted in shutdown of schools in the New Paltz school district. Police worked with schools and local services to develop a better community phone security system. The next time a threat was called in, the voice of the caller was recognized from a recording made by the 911 system and an arrest followed soon after. The New Paltz school districts had experienced a rash of bomb threats in 1999, but since the December 20 incident, no further threats had been received.
Signs should clearly communicate to students the prohibition against and penalties for making bomb threats.
† See the POP Guide on Bullying in Schools for application of this approach.
- Get the commitment of the school principal to the necessity of taking the social and moral climate of the school seriously. It is common, for example, for bullying and minor violence to be dismissed as "just a part of growing up."‡
‡ Triggering events like fights, gang signs and terms, excessive teasing, bullying, extortion of lunch money, and trespassingcan all be precursors to more serious criminal activity like weapons and bomb threats. (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 2003).
- Foster a school climate in which respect for others is tantamount.
- Treat all violence, even very mild forms (e.g., abusive language, taking a kid's lunch money) as serious. Expanding the definition of violence increases the awareness of its serious effects on children, may reduce tolerance of milder forms of aggression, and may reduce the incidence of serious violence.27 However, this approach should not be confused with "zero tolerance," which demands swift and rigid punishment for minor acts that may in fact increase the overall level of aggressiveness in a school. Rather, the aim of promoting an expanded definition of violence is to increase awareness and sensitivity to the negative effects of everyday acts of aggression that are often passed off as "normal."
- Encourage victims of violence to report incidents to their teachers.
- Establish a school-wide policy that addresses issues of aggression, rumor mongering, harassment, and teasing.
- Provide guidelines and training for teachers for dealing with specific actions of targeted violence in their classrooms.
- Establish a system for teachers to report and share information on violent incidents and threats that occur in their classrooms.
- Establish ways for students to report acts of violence and threats that they witness; make use of student leaders and representatives.
- Keep parents informed of what is happening at the school through cable TV, websites and letters and brochures sent to the home.31 Some rules and their enforcement in regard to prevention of school violence may seem arbitrary and even unnecessary to parents, especially if their content and enforcement are communicated to them by their children rather than directly from the school. Understanding and compliance with school rules cannot work well without the cooperation of parents.
- Consider providing programs for suspended or expelled students, since they are at risk and may be unsupervised at home if parents work.32
Immediate Responses to a Bomb Threat
These responses are designed to ensure that you and the school respond to a serious bomb threat in a systematic and orderly manner so that panic and miscommunications among police, community services, the school and parents do not occur. Their effectiveness depends heavily, if not totally, on the first nine responses above, which provide the groundwork for the ordered steps of crisis response outlined below. They also help reduce the harm caused by the bomb threat.10. Recording the threat. As we have noted, threats are communications that are received mostly by telephone, and sometimes by mail or e-mail. In one case, a bomb threat was scrawled on a bathroom wall.34 The threat is the only information that links the bomb or possible bomb to the offender. It is extremely important to record the exact language of a threat received by telephone, or to preserve the original packaging, envelopes and contents of a threat delivered by mail and not to disturb it in any way. A simple, easy-to-use recording device should be available close to the telephone through which all calls come into the school. There are many forms available that include detailed checklists for recording bomb threats. The form available on the ATF CD on bomb threats is an excellent example.35 This form should be included as part of the bomb threat response plan toolkit, and individuals who are likely to answer the phone should be familiar with the form and should receive training exercises in what to record, and what to say and not to say to the caller. Similarly, in cases where threats are made in person (such as by a student to a teacher in the classroom) teachers should be practiced and trained to solicit all relevant information, and to record exactly what the student says and his or her accompanying demeanor and physical attitude when making the threat.
11. Analyzing the threat. Once the threat is received, the details of the threat must be examined carefully to determine whether the threat is of sufficient seriousness to require immediate response and reporting to the police. This decision should be made easier if the response team (Response 1) has already laid down rules for assessing the level of seriousness of a threat and at what level of seriousness the threat should be reported to the police. The FBI has established a rough guide for ranking threats into three levels of risk.36
FBI CLASSIFICATION OF THREAT RISK LEVELS
Low Level of Threat: A threat that poses a minimal risk to the victim and public safety.
- Threat is vague and indirect.
- Information contained within the threat is inconsistent, implausible or lacks detail.
- Threat lacks realism.
- Content of the threat suggests person is unlikely to carry it out.
- Threat is made by young child (under 9 or10) and there is laughter in the background.
- The caller is definitely known and has called numerous times.
Medium Level of Threat: A threat that could be carried out, although it may not appear entirely realistic.
- Threat is more direct and more concrete than a low-level threat.
- Wording in the threat suggests that the threatener has given some thought to how the act will be carried out.
- There may be a general indication of a possible place and time (though these signs still fall well short of a detailed plan).
- There is no strong indication that the threatener has taken preparatory steps, although there may be some veiled reference or ambiguous or inconclusive evidence pointing to that possibilityan allusion to a book or movie that shows the planning of a violent act, or a vague, general statement about the availability of weapons.
- There may be a specific statement seeking to convey that the threat is not empty: Im serious! or I really mean this!
High Level of Threat: A threat that appears to pose an imminent and serious danger to the safety of others.
- Threat is direct, specific and plausible. For example, This is John Smith, Im fed up with Mr. Jones yelling at me. Theres a bomb under his desk.
- Threat suggests concrete steps have been taken toward carrying it out, for example, statements indicating that the threatener has acquired or practiced with a weapon or has had the intended victim under surveillance.
Source: Adapted from OToole (n.d.) [Full text ]
12. Evacuating the school. The assessment of the seriousness of the bomb threat will help decide whether to conduct a search, what kind of search to conduct and whether an evacuation or partial evacuation is necessary.† Of course, if an evacuation is contemplated, a search of the evacuation route and holding areas is necessary prior to ordering the evacuation. The decision should be considered by the bomb threat response team, but the final decision will be the responsibility of the school principal or school district superintendent, after consultation with local police and other emergency-related officialsagain, depending on the assessment of the seriousness of the bomb threat, and depending on the working relationship you have developed with your schools. While in most cases it is likely that there will be no bomb, and that the motivation of the threatener is probably to cause widespread disruption to the school by calling in a hoax, there is strong pressure to conduct an evacuation even if there is the slightest doubt that a real bomb could be present. It should be noted, however, that evacuation might not necessarily be the safest or even necessary response.37 In one case, for example, a student called in a threat, expecting an evacuation, and then shot students as they exited the school according to a practiced evacuation plan. In one junior-senior high school in New York in 2001, a rash of bomb threats resulted in the evacuation of the school only twice. Furthermore there is some anecdotal evidence that conducting evacuations for every bomb threat rewards the caller by doing exactly what he wants, and so may increase the incidence of such threats. In any event, the response plan (Response 1) should also have produced an evacuation kit containing basic but important information on such details as bus schedules, phone trees, name tags, bus rosters and routes etc.38
† The questions you must answer are: "Will it be an overt or covert search?" and "Will it be conducted without evacuation or after evacuation of the area to be searched? Regardless of the extent of the evacuation, a search is almost always advisable" (Federal Bureau of Investigation, n.d.). It should be noted, however, that evacuation may not necessarily be the appropriate response and will depend on local circumstances. In one junior-senior high school in New York in 2001, a rash of bomb threats resulted in the evacuation of the school only twice (School Board News (2001).13. Locating a bomb. If the school has already attended to the importance of maintaining the physical security of the school and its surroundings (Response 3), the search procedure will be much more efficient.39 The response team should have assembled all available plans of the school and a search protocol during its development of the response plan. There are various search techniques and procedures that may be followed, such as two-person searching, order of rooms to be searched, whether special equipment or explosives experts are required, etc. Your response plan should have reviewed such procedures and adapted them to its own plan. A search completion checklist is also of considerable use.
- Put the school in touch with the National Organization for Victim Assistance (www.try-nova.org/), which provides a wealth of information and access to support groups for victims of many different kinds of violence.
- Review the bomb threat response plan. After the bomb threat incident is over, the bomb threat response team should meet and review where things went right and where things went wrong and adjust the plan accordingly.
Response With Limited Effectiveness17. Implementing zero tolerance. Some states have legislated mandatory laws that, for example, require "suspension for 365 calendar days any student who makes a false bomb threat."44 There are no research data to support the effectiveness of suspension (either long or short term) or other drastic punishments that are often implemented in the name of zero tolerance, in reducing student disruption or school violence. However, there is research that links suspension to a higher dropout rate.45 A zero-tolerance policy may also contribute to an excessively authoritarian climate, which may actually provoke violence in schools.
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Bomb Threats in Schools
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