our nation struggles to address youth violence,
educators are faced with very challenging security
threats. Bombs are one of several new crime trends.
Administrators are asking for bottom line answers
to questions like "do we evacuate?"
and "who searches?" What is an acceptable
search? Regrettably, there is very little reliable
information to assist in determining the difference
between a hoax and the real thing. This document
is designed to assist school administrators as
they face these life-threatening challenges.
Before Littleton, Colorado over 90% of school-based
bomb threats were pranks. Callers often gave little
information, such as "there s a bomb in the
building," and hung up quickly. Many school
administrators managed the bomb threats without
evacuating. Currently, this must be weighed carefully
against the statistical increase in more violent
types of youth crime. According to the Bureau
of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms, there were
2,217 bombing incidents in America in 1997, 107
(5%) of them occurred in educational settings.
This paper is presented as a service to school
administrators and outlines steps of action for
managing bomb threats from pre-incident preparation,
through decision-making, searches, evacuation
procedures, and post-incident response. In order
to present the information in sequence, let s
start in the main office where the call is received.
Front office personnel including students who
answer phones should be trained to take the following
steps when they receive a bomb threat.
When bomb threat calls are received the phone
call recipient should:
the caller on the phone as long as possible
and do not hang up
down the caller ID number and the exact
time of the call
a student is answering the phones, have
an adult take the call if time permits
someone to alert the building administrator
down everything the caller said, use the
bomb threat call sheet
an educated guess as to the caller s sex,
age, race, and accent.
any background noises
after the caller hangs up, keep the phone
off the hook so the police can trace the
this matter only with administrators to
ensure that misinformation does not cause
In order to effectively direct all phases of action
relating to the bomb threat, a point of overall
control could be established. The command center
is often located in the main office where the
communication equipment is located. Principals
and/or designated staff who possess
decisionmaking authority gather there. One of
your first steps should be to notify law enforcement
officials, your assessment needs to be made in
consultation with them.
All bomb threats must be taken seriously and carefully
analyzed. The bomb report should be treated as
genuine until investigated and until a search
of the school has been completed. Begin your decision-making
process by gathering as much information about
the bomb report as possible. Factors you will
be considering include:
there been national bomb incidents lately?
there been other hoaxes lately?
a hostile student been suspended recently?
there exams scheduled for today?
it senior skip day?
unexplained student unrest?
rumors circulating about a student threatening
to harm others?
much information did the caller provide?
(You can generally get more information
out of a caller when it is not a hoax.)
the seriousness in the voice of the caller?
any specific details given?
the caller have knowledge of the design
of the school?
recent break-ins? (Look for evidence of
the caller give repeated warnings? This
seriously escalates the degree of danger.
your surveillance tapes.
bomb incidents, such as Oklahoma and the
embassy building in New York received no
Once you have gathered the information, subjective
judgement must be made regarding the degree of
credibility or dependence that can be placed upon
it. Trust your intuitions and experience.
School administrators are faced with at least
five possible alternatives: 1. Conduct a low profile
search of the exterior grounds and public areas
of the building. 2. Conduct a comprehensive search
having all staff search their work area, in addition
to the grounds and public areas so the entire
building is covered. 3. Search with partial evacuation.
4. Evacuate after searching or 5. Evacuate immediately.
Evacuating immediately is an alternative that
on face value appears to be the preferred approach,
however, under certain circumstances evacuating
personnel may increase rather than decrease the
risk of injury. Bombs are three times more likely
to be planted outside buildings than inside. A
bomber wishing to cause personal injuries could
place a bomb in the shrubbery near an exit. Public
areas inside the school are the second most frequent
place devices are located. Any evacuation that
requires students and staff to move through public
areas such as halls, public restrooms, lobbies,
parking lots, playgrounds, might increase the
risk of injury during any detonation.
During the rash of threats that plagued schools
last spring (1999), officials often waited for
hours for explosive-detecting dogs to arrive and
sweep the buildings. As a result many administrators
are identifying staff willing to help investigate
when these calls occur. School personnel are perhaps
in the best position to scan the building for
suspicious objects because they know when something
is out of place. When indicated and there is sufficient
time, school personnel can conduct a preliminary
check of the building and grounds. The search
should only be initiated if this can be accomplished
in a safe manner. Some are developing signals
alerting staff to scan their work area; search
results are passed on to messengers in each hall
who report back to administrators. The objective
is to identify objects that do not belong there.
General search guidelines include:
on the outside of the school and work inward
inside, start at the bottom and work up
personnel always work toward each other
for background noises
As staff members scan their work area, they are
instructed: 1) to divide the room into various
search levels, the first sweep covers all objects
resting on the floor or built into the walls,
up to your waist; 2) the second sweep is a scan
of the room from your waist to chin height; and
3) the third sweep covers the room from the top
of your head to the ceiling, including air ducts,
window tops and light fixtures.
If a suspicious object is found, under no circumstances
should it be touched, tampered with or moved.
Staff are to immediately report the object to
the building administrator and follow their instructions.
Law enforcement will need to know where the bomb
is located and if there are there any others as
well as where the explosive package came from,
who discovered it, why it is suspected of being
a bomb, and if it has been disturbed or moved?
Evacuation is often viewed as merely moving students
and staff out of the school as in a fire drill.
Evacuation in response to a bomb threat may be
much more complicated, extreme care must be taken
to not cause panic. If panic begins, the potential
for serious personal injury increases dramatically.
When a device is found or the threat analysis
indicates a high degree of risk is present, give
the evacuation signal.
When staff hear the evacuation signal they are
a rapid scan of their work area
the attendance book
instruct students to take their valuables
and walk to the assigned area, usually 300
feet from the building
not allow anyone to run, rush the stairwells,
or use the elevators
safe, take attendance and report search
results and student count to your administrator
with students until the search for the bomb
has been conducted
not re-enter the building until the all
clear signal is given
times of severe weather or a prolonged search,
students may be moved to a
warranted, messengers may be announcing
alternative exit routes or partial evacuation
instructions. Fast, flexible action may
be required. Students need to be trained
to listen and follow your instructions.
Familiarize yourself with the alternative
exit route(s) that apply to you and stay
open to the option of partial evacuation
One obvious result of evacuation is the disruptive
effect on the school community and the possibility
of more prank calls. To discourage this one school
had students seated in buses while
searching which took four hours, other schools
have students make up lost time on weekends or
at the end of the school year. The schools using
these strategies had no further bomb threats last
Many citizens understand the complexity of bomb
threats, but not all. Some school communities
feel a need to reassure parents of their commitment
to provide a safe environment for students and
staff by means of a letter to parents. In this
letter they have communicated about their efforts
to develop emergency procedures and the districts
intent to be proactive in assessing danger and
responding appropriately. They have involved parents
by asking them to report threatening situations
to law enforcement and school officials. Facing
this challenge together elicits parental support
Communication efforts during a crisis will be
one of your biggest challenges. Communication
challenges will include:
the nature of the situation to occupants
of the facility in a quick, calm manner
with Pupil Personnel Services and Central
with the public authorities, law enforcement,
and fire suppression as facts are established.
with the crisis team and giving directions
communicating with other buildings
communication with parents, if appropriate
communication with media personnel, if necessary
up with apprehension of suspects and any
with the families involved
It is important that all inquires by the news
media be directed to one person. Staff should
refer media personnel to the school media spokesperson
and to the designated media site. Do not permit
interviews with students or filming in the building.
The school spokesperson and law enforcement spokesperson
can organize a press conference together, if appropriate.
Specific details about the bomb configuration,
triggering device, or explosive used should not
be disclosed. Statements to the media should be
brief and factual, avoiding speculative opinion,
and emphasizing what the district is doing to
contain and resolve the crisis. Include counseling
resources, crisis hotlines, and a list of common
reactions to traumatic events.
It is entirely appropriate for school officials
to raise concerns about the impact that news stories
can have on other students. The longer the news
media concentrates its attention on a bomb threat
situation, the more likely it will cause additional
bomb threat incidents. Media spokespersons can
request limited coverage of incidents likely to
be imitated by other troubled youth as a means
of eliciting protection for all children. Limiting
coverage would also benefit past victims with
untreated posttraumatic stress symptoms who may
be more vulnerable to reacting impulsively.
with the Post-Incident Emotional Impact
Many schools are training staff to serve on crisis
response teams. Crisis team members are trained
to implement emergency procedures and to provide
crisis intervention services to the students and
staff affected by the traumatic event. The interventions
are psychoeducational rather than formal clinical
counseling. The Critical Incident Stress Management
(CISM) approach is an emerging standard of care
for crisis intervention services. CISM helps victims
address the psychological aftermath of traumatic
events. The types of school-based crisis interventions
provided correspond with the needs of those affected.
Crisis intervention services may include:
a staff meeting (informational or defusing)
classes (informational or defusing)
individual students or staff members
groups of students or staff members
of victims, witnesses or others who were
injured individuals at the hospital
support to family members or others at the
funeral announcements and memorial activities
an informational meeting for parents
a debriefing for the crisis team once the
crisis has passed
Some school districts train crisis teams in each
building; others have one mobile team, which covers
all of the schools in their district. The International
Critical Incident Stress Foundation conducts regular
CISM training covering the CISM perspective for
school crisis response.
School crises are like community disasters because
they affect so many people. Communities have many
natural support systems interested in helping
during emergencies. But these support systems
need relevant information and pre-incident crisis
intervention training. School crisis team members
often take the lead in providing the critical
incident stress information to these helpers and
guiding their response efforts. Crisis materials
and on-site informational trainings covering common
reactions to grief, trauma, and critical incident
stress, as well as incident specific handouts,
on suicide, rape, abuse and personal safety are
often appreciated. These handouts include suggestions
on how to help children cope. For example, after
the kidnapping/murder of a seven year-old boy,
one community gave parents information about helping
children cope with grief and trauma, and instructed
parents on how to teach personal safety to their
children. The information helped them feel less
helpless and structured concrete steps they could
take to regain a sense of control and mastery.
Involving parents in your school crisis response
plan is vital. Parents can best facilitate much
of the support given to their children. Many school
crisis teams send letters to parents explaining
what happened and asking them to watch for the
reactions listed. The letters include tips on
how to help. When families and teachers discuss
reactions and concerns openly it helps mitigate
the stress and often leads to enhanced support
and improved safety measures. These restorative
efforts help the school community recover and
feel safe again, and keep the school environment
conducive to learning.
Network with law enforcement officials early
and learn what resources are available to help
you. Share your emergency procedures and clarify
2. Using a building floor plan, identify which
school personnel will be assigned to scan all
areas of your school. Be sure to assign staff
to restrooms, utility areas, storage areas,
exterior grounds, and doorways.
3. Using a building floor plan, identify alternative
exit routes and partial evacuation strategies.
4. The public address system and telephones
can be used to warn and communicate with all
school personnel. Do not use radios, electronic
bells, or walkie-talkies, because electronic
devices can activate bombs.
5. Internal communication plan: There may be
times when you decide not to use the public
address system to communicate instructions to
staff. To help convey verbal instructions to
staff, assign a staff member to each wing of
your school. The wing leader will deliver messages
between staff and building administrator(s).
Include the names of your wing leaders on your
bomb threat floor plan.
6. Identify school personnel willing to investigate
during low profile searches. They will be scanning
the public areas and grounds on short notice.
Low profile searches are utilized when you have
grounds to believe that the incident is a hoax.
7. Review the phone call recipient role with
front office personnel (include students who
8. Keep the bomb threat checklist and emergency
phone numbers accessible to all front office
9. As part of revised safety measures, some
schools are practicing lock-down drills to alert
staff and students to emergencies such as a
shooting or intruder in the building. When teachers
hear the lock-down signal, classroom doors are
locked and kids are kept out of the hallways.
These new trends in youth violence are sobering
and disturbing. It is hoped that open reflection
on the problem will help administrators to elicit
cooperation from school personnel and parents
as they face these challenges together. Protecting
our children and each other is a responsibility
requiring everyone s cooperation. School personnel
need to be alert and observant throughout the
day and report any signs of problems to school
administrators. Parents can help by reporting
concerns about a student or adult, who may pose
a threat, to law enforcement and school officials.
With the collective efforts of parents, educators,
and law enforcement personnel, we hope to intervene
Everly, G.S., & Mitchell J.T. (1997). Critical
Incident Stress Management (2nd ed.). Chevron
2. Flannery, R.B. (1999). Preventing Youth Violence.
3. Flannery, R.B. (1995). Violence in the Workplace.
OF LIABILITY STATEMENT
Marie Milkovich, Consultant, nor The American
Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress intends
to warrant, undertake, or otherwise represent
that any particular measure or procedure will
prevent or successfully mitigate a specific
bomb threat. This article is presented as a
service to school administrators. By adopting
these suggestions, you waive the right in the
future to assert any claim against Marie Milkovich
for any loss, damage or expense you may ever
sustain as a result of your reliance upon anything
to The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic