Bomb threats pose some unique planning and response issues for school administrators. And, though this is more typically a secondary school problem, planning should occur district-wide to include elementary, administrative and support facilities.
Just what is an appropriate administrative response?
First, evaluate the threat for credibility. Ignoring a bomb threat or always evacuating are two response strategies that can be inherently problematic. The first has some serious and obvious legal and liability implications and the latter can quickly become impractical. The best approach is to carefully evaluate each threat using a team approach and respond based on the merit and circumstances of the incident. While most occurrences of explosive devices being found or detonated on school campuses are not preceded by a communicated threat, this should never be the overriding determiner used in making the final decision. In examining any threat, the primary litmus test is in determining the level of credibility based on all known facts.
Next, determine the level of threat. A low level threat is generally nonspecific with little or no indication of credibility. A medium level threat includes more specific details related to motive, location, etc. A high level threat would include a strong indication that a device is on campus.
A low level response should include notification of staff with instructions to be vigilant of unusual student behavior. Law enforcement should be notified because any type of bomb threat – regardless of degree of credibility – is a criminal offense. While a detailed search may not be warranted, personnel should be alert for any suspicious or unusual item.
A medium level response would include all of the aforementioned, as well a possible evacuation, relocation of students or leaving them in existing locations. It may involve a general walk through of the school by designated staff or, by necessity it may include a room by room examination. Some response by emergency service providers would be expected.
A high level response would usually involve all of the above, as well as evacuation or relocation of students; law enforcement would potentially treat the campus as a crime scene. Preparations for a search of the campus using special equipment or resources may be necessary.
Maintain security of school’s response strategies while keeping staff informed. Plan for the arrival of parents on campus during the event.
Staff should be provided with bomb threat procedures and a thorough discussion should occur at the start of the school year. Provisions should include how substitute staff will be made aware of the procedures and any individualized responsibilities that might be involved. Bomb threat procedures should be classified as confidential and details not made public. Any reference to bomb threat procedures in posted information such as classroom flip charts should be generic and general in nature. Typically most schools use fire evacuation notification systems when the need arises to move students to an alternative location. Staff should stay in the routine of having students take their immediate personal possessions with them during any evacuation. This is especially valuable in a bomb threat where a detailed search is necessary. When personal possessions such as book bags are left in classrooms it may cause personnel to spend extra time searching these items.
Prepare for issues related to communication.
While the chances of an electronic communication instrument such as a cellular phone or two-way radio detonating an explosive device is remote, it can occur, so plan ahead related to communicating with and between staff during the event. Staff supervising students will have to be especially attentive to students trying to use cellular devices and should be prepared to seize phones if necessary. Second, expect media attention on bomb threats, especially with incidents where students are evacuated, relocated or if a suspicious item is found.
In addition, as parents hear about the threat they may call or come to the school. Know that communicating with these two groups will be important and plan in advance on what information can and will be released and how it will occur. Try to gain media cooperation on not publicizing low level threats and sensationalizing others as it may breed copycat incidents.
A variety of resources are available to schools for developing bomb threat response procedures. Schools should always involve emergency responders such as local police and fire departments.