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Bomb Threats in Schools

Guide No. 32 (2005)

by Graeme R. Newman

The Problem of Bomb Threats in Schools

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

The guide begins by describing the problem and reviewing factors that increase the risk of bomb threats in schools. The guide then identifies a series of questions that might assist you in analyzing the local problem of bomb threats in schools. Finally, the guide reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.

The scope of this guide is limited to bomb threats in schools, public or private, kindergarten through 12 th grade. Colleges and universities are excluded because they generally differ from schools. Their organization and administration differ; they have their own police within the university community; and many universities do not have a physically identifiable perimeter as schools do. In fact, college campuses have much more in common with other public service organizations, such as health services, entertainment venues and, to some extent, shopping malls. While there are a number of common responses to bomb threats that apply to almost any setting, the environment of schools is sufficiently different to warrant separate consideration.

The feature that distinguishes a bomb threat from other kinds of assaults and threats is that it is primarily a furtive crime­­—or at least a crime that can be committed from a distance. Modern communications make it possible for offenders to communicate their threat without having to physically confront the targets at the time of the threat or even at the time of the assault. Many assaults or destructive acts in schools follow threats, or constitute threats in themselves. The reason why an offender might choose a bomb as the carrier of the threat over some other item or implement of destruction and injury (e.g., assault weapons, arson) is unknown, though the immediate, disruptive action it causes is surely part of the reason. Certain kinds of injury and damage may also be enhanced by a bombing, such as arson achieved through an explosive device.

Related Problems

There are several problems related to bombs, threats, and schools that are not directly addressed in this guide and merit separate analysis. They include:

Extent of Bomb Incidents and Bomb Threats

Data on bomb incidents (any event in which an actual bomb or bomb look-alike is involved) and bomb threats (any event in which a bomb threat is communicated that may or may not involve an actual bomb or bomb look-alike) are limited. The FBI reports that close to 5 percent of bombing incidents in the United States in 1999 (the most recent year for which FBI data are available) were targeted at schools. It is unknown what portion of these incidents involved threats. For the period January 1990 to February 28, 2002 the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) recorded 1,055 incidents of bombs being placed in school premises.1 Again, we do not know what proportion of these incidents involved threats. For the most part, however, it is probably reasonable to conclude that bomb incidents involving real bombs in schools are relatively rare, though they have been with us for quite some time. Furthermore, relatively few bomb explosions are preceded by a warning or threat to officials. Of the 1,055 bomb incidents in schools reported by ATF, only 14 were accompanied by a warning to school or other authorities.

† The first known school bombing occurred in May 1927 in Bath, Michigan. A local farmer blew up the school, killing 38 pupils, six adults and seriously injuring 40 other students ( Missouri Center for Safe Schools 2001).[Full text ]

There are no national statistics on bomb threats as such, though they are more common than bomb incidents. However, we can say that they are not evenly distributed throughout school districts: rashes of bomb threats can occur in particular localities.2 For example, in the 1997-8 school year, one Maryland school district reported 150 bomb threats and 55 associated arrests.3 The South Carolina Department of Education in its 1999-2000 school incident crime report lists “disturbing schools,” which includes bomb threats, hoaxes, false fire alarms etc., among its 10 top crimes, second only to simple assaults.4 During the past five years, many states have enacted severe penalties for issuing false bomb threats, which reflects the perception that the incidence of bomb threats is widespread.

Impact on Victims

The occurrence of bomb incidents or threats can have a major impact on the targeted victims depending on how the school responds. The potential for serious injury and damage makes even an empty threat a very serious incident. Thus, even though some 90 percent of bomb threats in schools may turn out to be pranks, each threat must be taken seriously and acted upon immediately. Evacuation of buildings causes major disruption, which in many cases may be an attractive outcome from the offender’s point of view. Many school districts report losses in excess of $250,000 because of school closings and costs of bomb search squads. School districts are increasingly requiring schools to make up days lost due to bomb threats.5

† This is a widely quoted statistic. To the extent that the author could determine, it is not based on any specific research study. The Hartford Insurance Company (Hartford Loss Control Department 2002) reports that 5 to 10 percent of bomb threats involve real bombs. See http://mb.thehartford.com/insurance_info/pdfs/570-050.pdf.

Finally, the publicity that surrounds rare but shocking incidents of targeted violence in schools affects all communities, even those far away from where the incidents occur. After the Columbine incident, more than 70 percent of respondents nationally said that the same thing could happen in their community. Fear of targeted violence in schools far outstrips the actual risk,†† which makes responding to threats extremely difficult for school authorities that may be hesitant to reveal the occurrence of every single bomb threat that occurs, particularly if there is strong indication that the threat is false.

† The Columbine High School massacre occurred on April 20, 1999, in Jefferson County, near Littleton, Colorado. Two teenage students planned the massacre, carried it out by shooting 12 students and one teacher, and committed suicide.

†† According to Reddy et al. (2001)… the three major television networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC, aired a total of 296 stories on the shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado…in contrast, lightning accounts for more deaths overall, and bathtub accidents account for more deaths of children, than do school shootings … yet, they receive comparatively little media coverage.”

About Bomb Threats

Motives: There are many supposed motives for bomb threats, among them: humor, self assertion, anger, manipulation, aggression, hate and devaluation, omnipotence, fantasy, psychotic distortion, ideology, retaliation and no doubt there are many more.6 However, the research on motives is generally limited to other kinds of violence, so any imputation of motives to those who deliver bomb threats must remain speculative.

Delivery: Bomb threats are delivered in various ways: by letter, face-to-face, email, on a student’s website, or even a gesture. However the most common means of delivering a bomb threat is by telephone.7

How seriously should a threat be taken? The seriousness of a bomb threat is self evident because of the potential for widespread destruction that can be wrought by a bomb, compared to other weapons that are usually aimed at particular targets. However, if, as we have noted already, 90 percent of bomb threats are hoaxes (either there is no bomb at all or the “bomb” is a fake), how seriously should the threat be taken? Since the extent of disruption caused by bomb threats is considerable whether the bomb is real or not, all such threats are often responded to on the assumption that a real bomb does exist. In fact, the law throughout the United States tends to treat false bomb threats almost as severely as real bomb threats and makes little exception for juveniles. Yet in the hurly-burly of the school setting, many threats are made in the normal course of the day among students and between teachers and students, some of which allude to explosives. The majority of such threats are never reported to the police. For example, a student states to his gym teacher, “All jocks deserve to be blown up.” The seriousness with which to take this threat depends on how it is delivered. If the student was laughing or joking, the teacher may pay no mind to it. If made by a student with a history of such pronouncements, the threat may be taken more seriously. It is therefore important for schools to develop a response plan that includes criteria for making assessments of seriousness and for adopting responses commensurate with that assessment (see below).

† Making a false bomb threat is a federal offense punishable under United States Code 18-844(e), with a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, $250,000 fine, or both. This penalty also applies to juvenile offenders (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 2003). However the majority of juveniles are prosecuted under local and state laws, which increasingly provide severe penalties.

Specificity of Bomb Threats. In general, the specificity of the bomb threat is the best guide to its seriousness.8 , The specificity of a bomb threat may be assessed according to:

† This is a widely held view among experts. There is, however, no formal research study that affirms or negates it.

Table 1 summarizes in a general way the reasons given or inferred for issuing bomb threats and their links to the specificity of the threat. This is a classification based on information published in newsletters and other information outlets of government and non-government organizations that typically respond to bomb threats. Certain kinds of bomb threats are likely to be more specific than others. For example, a conditional threat must state the condition to be met, which requires much more specificity. In general, the more specific the threat, the easier it is to decide on the response.

Table 1: Types of bomb threats in schools and their specificity

Type Threat rationale Vague threat Specific threat
Conditional “Do this or else.” “Put back the candy machines or I’ll bomb the school.” Student expressing outrage, probably no bomb unless there has been a series of such threats. “If you don’t put back the vending machines, a bomb will go off in the cafeteria at 12 o’clock today.”
Instrumental Threat made in order to achieve another usually immediate goal. Offender calls school and says, “There’s a bomb in the building” and immediately hangs up. Student calls in false bomb threat in order to disrupt classes and get the day off. “I’ve put a bomb in the school set to go off at 10:00. Burn down the school!”
Getting even Bomber inverts power relationship between himself and the target. “Death to all and I shall rule the world.” Student places this threat on his website. Threat does not explicitly mention bomb. If identity of threatener is known should probably be taken seriously, especially if past history of threats. “I’m sick of being humiliated by Smith. Today is the day when Smith and his precious science labs will be terminated.”
Hate (ideological, religious, ethnic) Bomber makes threat against hated opponent or target. “Death to all child murderers!” Threat called into a school day before family planning officials visit school. “Stay away from school tomorrow. The child murderers will be blown to hell where they belong! I’m not joking!”

Factors Contributing to Bomb Threats in Schools

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses. Unfortunately, there is no research that directly addresses the causes of bomb threats in schools. There is, however, a limited amount of research that examines how threats of various kinds arise in schools and the situations in which they occur.9 The majority of this research is directed at developing two types of response: (1) an intervention plan aimed at prevention of threats and reducing their harm if carried out and (2) a response protocol in the event that an actual bomb threat or incident occurs. All of the research on which these two responses are based is focused on threat assessment, a protocol developed by the U. S. Secret Service to identify in advance individuals who may be most likely to attack the President and other individuals the Secret Service is responsible for protecting.

The methodology used in these studies has been to collect detailed information concerning the circumstances that prevailed before and after major cases of targeted violence, including shootings and bombings. This information is then analyzed for any patterns that may indicate those circumstances that seemed to be conducive to targeted violence. The Secret Service applied this methodology to 37 cases of targeted violence in schools (which included some bomb-related events), collecting data on the personal and background characteristics of the offenders, their behavior before the violence occurred, and the school administrative and interpersonal response to the behaviors of the offenders before and after the event.

Based on the results of the Secret Service studies and those of student surveys,10 there are four factors that contribute to bomb threats in schools and these factors interact in different ways in different situations:

† “…there is no profile or single ‘type’ of perpetrator of targeted violence. Rather, violence is seen as the product of an interaction among the perpetrator, situation, target, and the setting” (Reddy et al. 2001).

Offenders

The Secret Service study of incidents of targeted violence in schools concluded the following:11

While there has been some suggestion that bombers have particular types of personalities (obsessive-compulsive, psychopathic), there is insufficient scientific evidence to back up this claim.12 Finally, the vast majority of threats are called in by students, though there are occasional cases of threats by teachers.

† A third-year middle school mathematics teacher who reportedly told police she wanted the day off was charged Tuesday with calling in a bomb threat to Grayling Middle School ( Traverse CityRecord Eagle, April 10, 2002).

Family Background

No research has definitively, or even roughly, identified a constellation of factors that causes an individual to issue a bomb threat or target violence in a school. However, the general literature of law enforcement and school authorities (e.g., FBI, U.S. Secret Service, ATF working with the Department of Education) has identified a number of possible factors, though it should be emphasized that this does not mean that any one or even several of these factors necessarily lead to bomb-threatening behavior:13

School

A school climate that is insensitive to provocations to violence (such as bullying, harassment by teachers and students, an excessively authoritarian climate, lack of respect of students for each other or teachers, gang activity, presence of provocative graffiti, lax dress rules, etc.) may be more likely to be a target of bomb threats. And where a school lacks basic prevention programs against attackers (such as monitoring entry and exit to the school, surveillance of areas in the school where bombs may be left, training of teachers to deal with violence in schools, and a systematic program for identifying and reporting warning signs), it too may be more likely to receive bomb threats.

† Harsh imposition of authority by a school that relies entirely on fear not only has been associated with violence against teachers but also may result in a student’s unwillingness to come forward to communicate potential problems of violence including his or her own victimization (Regoli and Hewitt 1994, Curcio and First 1993).

Opportunity

Making a bomb is easily within the ability of juveniles. In fact, ATF reports that the success rate of bomb detonations for bombs in schools is slightly higher than that for the national rate of all bombings. The range of explosive substances and ways of detonating them are limited only by the bomber’s imagination and resourcefulness. Information on how to construct them is readily available on the Internet or is widely available in books. Obviously, since this information is available to everyone should they wish to seek it out, its availability per se does not tell us which individuals are likely to make a bomb threat. Many of the recipes for making bombs use common everyday chemicals. However, even obtaining such information does not mean that individuals will use it to make a bomb or issue a bomb threat. Of course, they do not need any information on constructing bombs if they plan to issue a false bomb threat.

† There are many websites that provide the necessary information, though probably the most widely known is The Anarchist Cookbook of which there are many versions online ( www.righto.com/anarchy/online.html) or the original is available in hard copy from many book stores. This book provides directions on everything from how to make letter bombs to counterfeiting currency. Another popular source is the Black Booksof Improvised Munitions Handbooks, providing information on improvised explosives, bombs, firearms, timers, etc. This is a version of the U.S. Army Technical Manual 31-210.

Concealment is also not difficult. Although bombs may be concealed in an incredible variety of containers—from fire extinguishers to pens and letters— most bombs are of the simple pipe bomb form that is concealed in an ordinary-looking bag or some everyday object.14 , Letter bombs are extremely rare, though they receive considerable media coverage.††

† The typical Hollywood device is sticks of dynamite with a clock taped to it. In fact, the most common device is a pipe bomb, a length of pipe filled with explosive…” (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 2003).

†† The U.S. Postal Inspection Service reports that of 170 billion pieces of mail processed in a typical year, only a very few letter bombs—an average of 16—are reported or investigated (Hartford Loss Control Department 2002). [Full text]

hoax caller

Bomb threats have often been called in via pay phones which reduced the likelihood that police could locate the individual placing the call.

Part of the means to carry out a bomb threat effectively is the placement of the bomb. The preferred places are in areas where there is constant public access.Of the 1,055 incidents reported by ATF, 92 were outside, many of these in the parking lot; 190 inside, the majority either in the restroom or in a locker; and 123 either inside or outside in trash cans, air conditioners, window or door areas.15 The opportunity to place a concealed bomb without detection is considerable unless the school has an established system of monitoring its premises.

Finally, the telephone’s popularity for delivery of threats hardly needs explanation: it is widely available, cheap, and provides a (perhaps) false sense of anonymity for the caller. Pay phones exist in many if not all schools, and cell phones—until recently difficult to trace—are widely available among students. As we will see below, monitoring this ready-made threat delivery system may be one useful preventive response.

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of bomb threats in schools, and because of a lack of research on bomb threats in particular, has drawn on other research on related problems such as school shootings. You must combine these basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Asking the Right Questions

Much of what you do will also depend on how the problem presents itself in your jurisdiction. Since bomb threats in schools are a statistically rare phenomenon, it is likely that you may hear of only an occasional threat in your local schools. However, there is always the possibility that a rash of bomb threats may occur. In either case, you will need to ask questions that will lead to an effective response. An effective response will determine: (1) how to deal with the immediate bomb threat, in real time, and (2) how to prevent bomb threats from occurring in the first place. The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of bomb threats in schools, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.

The School

Immediate response

Preventive response

Threats

Munitions

Locations/Times

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. In most cases you will need to coordinate collection of information with the schools. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to bomb threats in schools:

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.

Warning Signs of Potential School Violence

NOTE: These signs have been extracted from a variety of sources46 and do not represent a scientific assessment, and should be regarded as speculative.

Questions to Ask When Coordinating the Bomb Threat Response Team

(Source: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 2003)

Police

Fire

Bomb Squad (also may include Explosives Detection Canine Unit)

EMS

 ATF

Local Emergency Management Office

Appendix: Summary of Responses to Bomb Threats

Prevention and Harm Reduction
# Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
1 Developing a response plan Response plan reduces confusion should a threat occur and identifies points of early intervention …the bomb response plan is coordinated with the school’s and community’s overall disaster response plan Requires collaboration with local emergency response teams, such as police, firefighters and EMS services
2 Developing a threat reporting system Identifies possible warning signs and communicates that violence or threats of violence are not tolerated …you have a close and trusted working relationship with the school Data collected may be used for policing research as well as indicating when immediate police intervention is required
3 Helping the school conduct a security survey Identifies points of vulnerability for placement of bombs or break-ins …it is followed up with specific recommendations for improving security, such as installation of appropriate lighting, placement of parking lots etc. Your help will be needed by the school to convince the school board and district supervisor that the expense of upgrading security is justified    
4 Controlling access to school premises Makes it more difficult for would-be bombers to enter school …the school involves the parents and students in implementing these changes Some changes may be unpopular for legal, moral or political reasons
5 Monitoring communication into and out of campus Increases chance of identifying possible sources of threats …the school installs secure phone system, restricts cell phone use, monitors public phone use and Internet activity Incoming email is difficult to control; regular mail must be inspected in case of letter bombs or threats by mail
6 Warning and educating students Students learn that there are clear rules and laws against bomb threats that the school takes seriously …the school communicates clearly by its policies and actions that contraband, weapons, and explosives are prohibited from school grounds and that bomb threats have very serious consequences Searches may be legally challenged; collaboration of parents and school board is essential in establishing these procedures. Instruction by law enforcement officers may not be an effective method
7 Fostering a positive school climate A safe and secure social and moral climate works against violence including bomb threats …you get the total commitment of school principal to the whole-school approach Dealing with milder forms of aggression may help reduce or prevent the incidence of serious violence; some methods of intervention such as peer mediation are not effective
8 Identifying troubled children, bullies and victims of targeted violence Threat assessment training for teachers may help identify possible warning signs of bomb threats …principal provides time for teachers to meet together and share information Requires principal’s commitment to threat assessment approach, and time away from the classroom for teachers
9 Reaching out to parents Parent cooperation helps to enforce rules and identify problems in advance …schools make their facilities available for after-school activities and other community events where parents are involved Rules aimed at preventing bomb threats and violence may appear unnecessary or excessive to parents; their involvement in understanding the rationale of such rules is essential
Immediate Responses to a Bomb Threat
# Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
10 Recording the threat Response team, formed in Response 1, implements bomb threat response plan …all procedures in considerable detail with forms and checklists are already provided Recording exact details of threat is crucial
11 Analyzing the threat Seriousness of the threat is assessed so that appropriate action can be determined …decisions have already been made by the bomb response team as to what level of threat warrants reporting to police or other type of response Depends entirely on Response 1
12 Evacuating the school Decision is taken whether to evacuate the school according to seriousness of the threat and local circumstances …decision-making procedure and responsibility for making decision has been worked out before hand in the response plan Requires school practice of evacuation routes, toolkit for identifying and tracking students, contacting parents etc., all of which would have been worked out in Response 1
13 Locating a bomb Response team conducts a search using procedures and materials provided by Response 1 …those searching are very familiar with the plan and school premises Can be greatly enhanced if preparations for bomb search were made in Response 1
14 Talking to the media Positive media relations are established to ensure smooth and accurate communication to parents and community …an individual of the response team (Response 1) is the designated media spokesperson and is trained in media relations Individuals with media training may not be available in which case a press conference is called and a written statement made, in order to maintain better control over information
15 Following up Help the school provide support for those who have been traumatized by the incident …you contact the National Organization for Victim Assistance The response plan should be reviewed and adjusted where necessary
16 Placing police in schools Police conduct sessions on gang avoidance, conflict resolution, violence reduction ..done within a broader safer schools program, including extensive dialog with school authorities There is a danger that police may be looked to as the disciplinarians thus shifting responsibility for the problem away from the school
Response With Limited Effectiveness
# Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
17 Implementing zero-tolerance, mandatory suspension Student is immediately removed from school   Removing the student does not remove the threat, as threats are commonly called in by students who have a grudge, who may be on suspension or have dropped out

Endnotes

[1] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (2003).

[2] School Board News (2001).

[3] National School Safety and Security Services (n.d.).

[4] South Carolina Department of Education (2000).

[5] Kiesewetter (1999).

[6] McCann (2002).

[7] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (2003).

[8] Tunkel (2002).

[9] McCann (2002).

[10] Gaughan, Cerio and Myers (2001).

[11] Vossekuil et al. (2002).

[12] Meloy and McEllistrem (1998).

[13] O’Toole (n.d.).

[14] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (2003).

[15] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms And Explosives (2003).

[16] Wilson, Gottfredson and Najaka (2001).

[17] Atkinson (2002); International Association of Chiefs of Police (1999); Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (n.d.).

[18] Cornell and Sheras (1998).

[19] Smith et al. (2001).

[20] Schonfeld et al. (1994).

[21] See Schneider (2002) for a comprehensive guide on safeguarding school facilities. [Full text]

[22] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms And Explosives (2003).

[23] Olweus (1978); Olweus (1992); Olweus and Limber (1999).

[24] Petersen, Larson and Skiba (2001).

[25] Wilson, Gottfredson and Najaka (2001).; Gottfredson (1997). [Full text]

[26] Gottfredson (1997). [Full text]

[27] Astor (1998).

[28] Reddy et al. (2001); Fein and Vossekuil (1998); Vossekuil et al. (2002). [Full text]

[29] International Association of Chiefs of Police (1999).[Full text]

[30] International Association of Chiefs of Police (1999).[Full text]

[31] International Association of Chiefs of Police (1999).[Full text]

[32] International Association of Chiefs of Police (1999).[Full text]

[33] See Adelman and Taylor (2002) for a comprehensive guide.

[34] School Board News (2001).

[35] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms And Explosives (2003).

[36] O’Toole (n.d.).

[37] School Board News (2001).

[38] International Association of Chiefs of Police (1999).[Full text]

[39] Higgins (1996).

[40] Higgins (1996).

[41] U.S. Department of Education (2000).[Full text]

[42] Atkinson (2002), p.21.

[43] Poland (1994); Mayer and Leone (1999); Petersen and Straub (1992).

[44] North Carolina Safe Schools (n.d.).

[45] Petersen, Larson and Skiba (2001).

[46] See International Association of Chiefs of Police (1999). [Full text]

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