Managing Bomb Threats For School Administrators

Marie Courtney Milkovich M.S., LLP


As 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.

Bomb Call Recipient

When bomb threat calls are received the phone call recipient should:

  • Keep the caller on the phone as long as possible and do not hang up
  • Write down the caller ID number and the exact time of the call
  • If a student is answering the phones, have an adult take the call if time permits
  • Signal someone to alert the building administrator or designee
  • Write down everything the caller said, use the bomb threat call sheet
  • Make an educated guess as to the caller s sex, age, race, and accent.
  • Identify any background noises
  • Even after the caller hangs up, keep the phone off the hook so the police can trace the call
  • Discuss this matter only with administrators to ensure that misinformation does not cause panic


Command Center

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.

Decision Making

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:

  • Have there been national bomb incidents lately?
  • Have there been other hoaxes lately?
  • Has a hostile student been suspended recently?
  • Are there exams scheduled for today?
  • Is it senior skip day?
  • Any unexplained student unrest?
  • Any rumors circulating about a student threatening to harm others?
  • How much information did the caller provide? (You can generally get more information out of a caller when it is not a hoax.)
  • Consider the seriousness in the voice of the caller?
  • Were any specific details given?
  • Any missing chemicals?
  • Did the caller have knowledge of the design of the school?
  • Any recent break-ins? (Look for evidence of illegal entry.)
  • Did the caller give repeated warnings? This seriously escalates the degree of danger.
  • Check your surveillance tapes.
  • Large-scale bomb incidents, such as Oklahoma and the embassy building in New York received no warnings.


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.

Searches

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:

  • Start on the outside of the school and work inward
  • When inside, start at the bottom and work up
  • Search personnel always work toward each other
  • Listen 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 Procedures

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 to:

  • Conduct a rapid scan of their work area
  • Collect the attendance book
  • Calmly instruct students to take their valuables and walk to the assigned area, usually 300 feet from the building
  • Do not allow anyone to run, rush the stairwells, or use the elevators
  • Once safe, take attendance and report search results and student count to your administrator
  • Wait with students until the search for the bomb has been conducted
  • Do not re-enter the building until the all clear signal is given
  • In times of severe weather or a prolonged search, students may be moved to a
  • pre-arranged re-location site
  • When 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 strategies.


Deterrents

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 spring.

Involving Parents

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 and understanding.

Communication Challenges

Communication efforts during a crisis will be one of your biggest challenges. Communication challenges will include:

  • Communicating the nature of the situation to occupants of the facility in a quick, calm manner
  • Communicating with Pupil Personnel Services and Central Administration
  • Communicating with the public authorities, law enforcement, and fire suppression as facts are established.
  • Communicating with the crisis team and giving directions
  • Possibly communicating with other buildings
  • Coordinating communication with parents, if appropriate
  • Coordinating communication with media personnel, if necessary
  • Filing incident reports
  • Following up with apprehension of suspects and any disciplinary procedures
  • Communicating with the families involved


Media

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.

Dealing 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:

  • Facilitating a staff meeting (informational or defusing)
  • Visiting classes (informational or defusing)
  • Debriefing individual students or staff members
  • Debriefing groups of students or staff members
  • Defusing/debriefing of victims, witnesses or others who were traumatized
  • Visiting injured individuals at the hospital
  • On-site support to family members or others at the scene
  • Overseeing funeral announcements and memorial activities
  • Facilitating an informational meeting for parents
  • Scheduling 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.

Pre-incident Preparation:

 

1. Network with law enforcement officials early and learn what resources are available to help you. Share your emergency procedures and clarify roles.

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 answer telephones)

8. Keep the bomb threat checklist and emergency phone numbers accessible to all front office personnel.

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.


Conclusion

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 early.

Recommended Readings:

1. Everly, G.S., & Mitchell J.T. (1997). Critical Incident Stress Management (2nd ed.). Chevron Publishing.
2. Flannery, R.B. (1999). Preventing Youth Violence. Continuum International.
3. Flannery, R.B. (1995). Violence in the Workplace. Crossroad Publishing.


DISCLAIMER OF LIABILITY STATEMENT

Neither 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 presented.


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