Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

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.19Many 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.
  3. Helping the school conduct a security survey to make it more difficult for intruders to place a bomb. A security survey of the school premises should be conducted with an eye toward preventing break-ins and identifying vulnerable areas such as poorly lit parking lots, parking lots too close to the school building, and hard-to-monitor areas. Take steps to counter vulnerability by installing lighting as necessary, adding fencing to the entire perimeter of the school, installing break-in prevention hardware on doors and windows, removing unnecessary shrubbery or other items where bombs may be hidden, and patrolling parking lots.11Consider surveillance camera installation in locker areas and other areas that you identify from the security survey that are rarely used or supervised. Clearly, these preventive actions will demand money from a school’s usually strained budget. Your help in working with the school board and district supervisors to convince them of the importance of securing the school will be needed.

    † 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.
  5. Monitoring communication into and out of the school and grounds. Asnoted, telephones are the most common means of communicating a bomb threat. Make sure that the school administrators are versed in the use of 911 and enhanced 911, if it is available, and that they know how to trace a call using *69. Of course, school phones should have caller ID available. A quick and easy means of recording incoming phone calls should also be available.†† Encourage schools to institute a cell phone policy that minimizes their use or even prohibits their use during school time. Schools should monitor use of public phones and consider installation of surveillance cameras. Threats may also be sent by mail, so encourage the school to develop a system for checking and vetting all mail that comes into the school. All written communication should enter the school through one portal. A third means of communicating a threat is via the Internet either by email or posting on a website. School computer use should, of course, be closely monitored and students required to acknowledge and agree to a responsible use statement that, among other things, requires users to affirm that they will not use the computer to send threats, harass, or create and send destructive programs. Websites that incite violent behavior or provide information on bomb construction or weapon use should, of course, be blocked on all school computers. The level of surveillance of students and school activity is a sensitive issue. You will have to work carefully with schools and local community groups to establish a level of surveillance that is politically acceptable and feasible.

    † 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.

  6. Signs should clearly communicate to students the prohibition against and penalties for making bomb threats.

    Signs should clearly communicate to students the prohibition against and penalties for making bomb threats.

    Warning and educating students that weapons, contraband, bomb-related materials and bomb threats are prohibited. Post signs warning that individuals, lockers and vehicles are subject to search. Institute a dress code that prohibits dress that makes it easy to hide weapons or bombs under clothing. If circumstances require, search bags on entry into school or install an electronic device to identify hidden weapons.12 Communicate to students clear rules of acceptable behavior, and institute an anti-bomb threat program that educates students and teachers on the psychological, social, and economic destruction caused by bomb threats and other targeted violence. Students should be instructed on the law related to bomb threats, even when they are hoaxes.
  7. Fostering a positive school climate, free of aggression. Considerable research has been conducted in the United States and elsewhere on the effectiveness of using a “whole school approach”13 to reduce acts of violence and aggression. The overall social and moral climate of the school can have significant effects on reducing school violence. Other approaches have also demonstrated a reduction in the amount of school disruption and violence. These include those targeted at anger management, adolescent positive choices, conflict resolution, classroom behavior management, and anti-bullying programs.14 However, the effectiveness of these approaches varies according to school locality, and they are usually more effective if targeted at high-risk students.15 Peer mediation and counseling has generally not been found effective in reducing problem behavior. And in the case of drug use, instruction by law enforcement officers concerning the legal penalties and negative effects of drug use have not been found effective.16 Thus, you will need to research with the school the appropriate type of intervention that fits its needs. The following guidelines are recommended:

    † See the POP Guide on Bullying in Schools for application of this approach. [Full text ]

    • 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 trespassing…can 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.17 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.
  8. Identifying troubled children, bullies and victims of targeted violence. As noted above, school intervention programs that target high-risk students have been found to be most effective. You should work with the school district to develop a training program for teachers on how to identify troubled children and the warning signs (Appendix B) of possible targeted violence.18 However, note that risks increase if troubled children are grouped together in a single class or room.19 The idea of identifying troubled children is to sensitize teachers to the warning signs of possible targeted violence when students may carry out their threats or violent fantasies. This is the main goal of the threat assessment approach. Encourage school principals to provide time for teachers to meet in groups to share information concerning troubled children and exchange ideas on classroom management when threats and violence occur.
  9. Reaching out to parents. Many, if not the majority, of parents are busy working and often not at home when their children return from school. Encourage the school principal to provide useful after-school activities. Research has shown that students who attend after-school programs are less involved in delinquency and violence than those who do not.30 This is perhaps the most effective way for a school to reach out to parents to show that it understands the pressures and demands that are placed on today’s working parents. Schools should:
    • 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
    Finally, work with the school to make it a central community resource that local organizations as well as parents come to for a variety of services and recreational activities.33

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.

  1. Recording the threat. As we have noted, threats are communications that are received mostly by telephone, and sometimes by mail or email. 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.
  2. 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 possibility—an 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: “I’m 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, I’m fed up with Mr. Jones yelling at me. There’s 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 O’Toole (n.d.) [Full text ]

  3. 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 officials—again, 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).

  4. 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.
  5. Talking to the media. Your response plan should have included directions on when to call the media to report the incident or threat, who should do it, and preferably who to call in the media. The response team should have included a media representative in developing the plan. It is preferable that parents and relatives of the children be given timely and accurate information. Positive relations with media outlets will make this task much easier to accomplish. As a result of constructing the response plan, training in media relations could be an important undertaking for those individuals who will talk with the media in time of crisis such as a bomb threat.40
  6. Following up after the incident. Whether the consequences of the bomb threat resulted in discovery or even detonation of a bomb, or whether the threat turned out to be just a hoax, you may need to follow up with the school to:
    • 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.
  7. Placing police officers in schools. Depending on local conditions prevailing in the school and surrounding areas, placing police in schools on a permanent or regular basis may be appropriate. However this should be done as part of an overall “safer schools” approach, in which police work with the schools and local communities to reduce violence and the climate of violence in the school’s neighborhoods and communities.41 If police are perceived by both teachers and students as the major school disciplinarians, this shifts responsibility to the police and inadvertently undermines school officials’ authority and control.42 Some research has suggested that the introduction of police into a school may signal over-reliance on police intervention and may in fact increase levels of student disruption.43 Thus, this action should not be taken without extensive preparation and dialog between the police department and the appropriate school authorities.

Response With Limited Effectiveness

  1. 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.