Bomb Threat Basics

A rural school district recently learned that it had a flaw in its bomb threat protocol - the protocol called for evacuation of students to the same site each time a bomb threat was received. Fortunately, the school and public safety officials in the community were exceptionally good in their preventive protocols.

A high school student made threatening statements to other students who, to the credit of the students and the school district, reported the threats. By taking the threats seriously and conducting a thorough investigation, school and law enforcement officials recovered drawings of the building showing the locations of relevant security features. They then conducted a home search and recovered a partially constructed hoax device and drawings common to violent extremist groups. During interviews with the student, he admitted that he planned to build a real device, place it in the evacuation area and call in a bomb threat. The student also admitted that he had planned to try to cripple school system computers with several viruses. An independent psychologist who completed a court-ordered evaluation felt that the young man was intent on, and fully capable of, carrying out his plan had he not been identified through the investigation.

Because of the proper handling of the situation through an effective school/law enforcement threat-management partnership, you did not see yet another school tragedy on the news. But the situation alerted officials to what could have been a serious yet simple oversight in the manner in which bomb threats are often handled in schools around the nation.

The Scope of the Problem

The use of explosive devices in the school setting has increased in recent years. During the second half of the last school year, explosive devices detonated in Colorado, Missouri and Georgia on school property. A number of other incidents took place involving real devices and hoax devices and many U.S. schools were inundated with bomb threats. Additionally, real concerns arise regarding secondary devices -- devices designed to kill or injure evacuees and public safety responders -- that have actually been used on U.S. soil in recent years.

During the past few years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) has received more than 5,000 notifications of juvenile cases involving explosives. Why are so many of our youth experimenting with bombs? One reason is the unprecedented access to bomb-making instructions and tactics for the deployment of explosives. Today’s terrorist, anarchist, troubled youth or curiosity seeker can simply browse the Internet to learn how to make and use a wide variety of explosive devices. There is also no shortage of propaganda from hate groups to try to persuade maladjusted students why they should use explosives to make a statement to society.

For those who may be uncomfortable with the Web, there is a wide selection of books to choose from. One catalogue lists an incredible number of titles relating to explosives. Texts on bomb making, triggering devices, booby traps and remote control systems for explosives abound. The ease of learning how to make and use bombs is more disturbing because functional explosives can be made from such a wide variety of easily obtainable materials. A student of average intelligence can build a powerful vehicle bomb with less effort than some students expend on their science projects.

What can and should schools do? Five key responses can go a long way to help schools decrease the threat level:

1. Accept the reality that incidents involving bomb threats, hoax devices and real devices can occur in any school.

2. Get help from the experts, most importantly those public safety agencies that will actually be involved when incidents occur.

3. Develop and implement preventive measures based on the recommendations of the experts.

4. Develop bomb threat protocols for schools, special events and school buses, and effectively communicate them to all staff and area public safety agencies.

5. Develop crisis protocols for situations involving suspicious packages, actual known devices and detonation of a device on school property and at off-campus sites where school events take place.

Implementing a Plan

We should now look closer at each of these five categories.

1. School officials must accept the fact that while incidents involving real explosive devices are still statistically rare in the school environment, they do occur with enough frequency to merit serious consideration. Most school bomb incidents involving detonation of actual devices have been small devices of relatively low power. However, the largest device that failed to detonate at Columbine High School (which experts feel would have killed more than 400 students) is just one example of the potential for a mass-casualty bomb incident in the school setting.

2. Experts in the area of explosives should be contacted to see what training and technical assistance are available. The BATF is the nation’s lead agency for bomb incidents. They have some of the world’s best experts in this field on staff and some of the most state-of-the-art information available anywhere on bombs and bomb incidents. Consider calling on those individuals whose full-time capacity is to deal with these matters, those professionals who will be there by your side to assist you if an actual device detonates in one of your buildings. The United States Postal Inspectors are responsible for preventing, investigating and responding to incidents involving packages that are sent through the U.S. mail system. Here again, we find the best in the business. Don’t overlook your state and local law enforcement agencies. In my state, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation goes to the extent of sending its bomb technicians to Israel for training to insure that they have all available information on their specialty. Experts in explosives who work for public safety organizations tend to be very competent -- their lives often depend on it. It is in their interest to work with you at the planning stage rather than to come in to clean up a disastrous situation that could have been prevented.

3. Using the advice obtained from the experts, make each facility a tougher target, and document your efforts. Take steps such as making sure all vacant school lockers are kept locked, and evaluate the types, numbers and locations of waste receptacles and Dumpsters in and around your facility. Implementation of a strict dress code, random weapons screening and proper installation of security cameras will increase the chances that a violator will be caught or, more importantly, deterred. Setting a firm tone that any illegal activities relating to bombs or bomb threats will be dealt with swiftly and firmly may have a powerful deterrent value. My experience has been that school systems that make it a clear priority to identify and prosecute those who make bomb threats have far fewer bomb threats than those districts that deal with violators through suspension or expulsion without filing criminal charges. Those districts that choose to notify the media immediately following such arrests often have even better success.

4. Using guidance from local, state and federal public safety officials, school administrators should develop a thorough and realistic standardized system-wide protocol for handling bomb threats. Concerns, such as the use of multiple evacuation sites, how the decision to evacuate or not to evacuate will be made, the dangers of secondary (multiple) devices and credibility assessment, should be addressed in the protocol. All facilities should covered by the protocol. Be sure to include emergency management personnel in this process. The safety team at each facility should then develop a specific building procedure detailing site-specific points such as the location of evacuation sites and evacuation routes. The system-wide protocol should cover those things that every site must address such as minimum evacuation distance and should cover things such as incidents involving school buses, athletic events and special events such as graduation ceremonies.

5. The school system should also develop protocols and site procedures to address situations involving suspicious packages, suspected devices and detonation of an explosive device. If a device detonates in a school where considerable planning has not been made for this situation, a bad situation can become much worse.

By recognizing the reality of the dangers of bombs in the school setting and working with public safety officials, schools can be better prepared to deal with these difficult issues. While actual detonations of explosive devices on school property are still statistically rare, no school is immune to the threat of such an incident. Ask anyone who has experienced such a tragedy. They will quickly tell you that it is worth the effort to prepare.

Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.

A Few Free Resources - ADL-- The Anti-Defamation League can provide to school administrators high-quality training and/or resource materials relating to hate groups -- 212/490-2525. - The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is the nation’s lead federal law enforcement agency in the area of illegal explosives. ATF personnel can provide free training of the highest quality in many areas of the country. The agency also produces printed materials that are well suited for school staff -- Arson and Explosives Division, 202/927-7930. - United States Postal Inspectors have a great deal of knowledge concerning mail bombs. They can provide assistance with printed materials focused on prevention efforts and in many areas of the country, they can also provide training -- 800/654-8896. - National Resource Center for Safe Schools is a federally funded school safety center that can provide a wide range of high-quality resources to schools without charge -- 800/268-2275. - The School Safety Project of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency – Office of the Governor -- has 13 full-time school safety experts on staff. GEMA personnel offer a wide range of free technical assistance, training and response capabilities to all public and private schools in Georgia. The agency also shares its information by allowing out-of-state personnel to attend its seminars without charge, and by providing information on its general and secure Websites -- 404/635-7000 .