Gauging the danger schools face
Los Angeles USD and the New York City Department of Education both received electronic bomb threats on December 15, 2015.
LAUSD called off school. New York students remained in class.
Which district made the right call?
The lack of a clear answer to the question speaks to exactly why district administrators find threat assessment and response so challenging.
No bombs were found that December day in either Los Angeles or New York—and experts eventually determined that many schools throughout the nation received the same electronic warnings simultaneously.
But the stakes could not be higher. Make the wrong call and students and staff may be harmed, possibly fatally.
Yet evacuating or shutting down has consequences too, including an increased likelihood of copycat threats, lost instructional time and financial damage.
CNBC reported that LAUSD’s decision to close cost the district at least $29 million in state funding because of decreased daily attendance, traffic safety expenses and overtime paid to Los Angeles police officers.
Sadly, threats to schools are increasingly commonplace. Bomb threats alone have jumped more than 1,460 percent—yes, with a zero—since 2011, according to a study by the nonprofit Educator’s School Safety Network.
During the 2015-16 school year, over 1,200 threats were reported nationwide. More than half of bomb threats were called in; nearly one-third were found written somewhere in the school; and another 10 percent were received via social media or email.
Receiving a threat is a shock—and unless your district has a solid plan in place, experts say your reaction could potentially cause additional and unnecessary harm.
Better safe than sorry
Chris Marczak was just hours into his first day as superintendent of Maury County Public Schools in 2015 when one of his elementary schools received a robocall bomb threat.
Staff at the Tennessee school and district immediately followed the established safety procedures, which included vacating the building and contacting local law enforcement. After a bomb squad pronounced the building clear, students and staff returned to class, about two hours after the call first came in.
“Had there been a note dropped off or had a person come into the office and said, ‘There’s a bomb in the building,’ we would have followed the exact same procedures,” Marczak says.
A better-safe-than-sorry policy may seem like a surefire way to keep students and staff safe. And closing school is still the best response to some threats, even if they turn out to be unfounded—meaning many administrators will stick with an evacuate-or-close approach.
But, with fast, rigorous analysis, some incidents can be identified quickly as hoaxes, or district leaders can determine that a threat, though valid, doesn’t require vacating a school building. A chaotic evacuation may be just what the person who made the threat wants.
Your school threat assessment team serves the following functions, according to the FBI:
1. Gather information: What does the team know about the person who made the threat and about the targets?
2. Interview: What can threat assessment team personnel learn from anyone personally or professionally connected to the perpetrator and victims?
3. Evaluate: What does all of this information mean in terms of risk to people and the organization?
4. Follow up: If the emotional temperature has cooled around this situation, how will the team continue to monitor it to prevent re-escalation? Who will take the lead in managing the threat-maker’s behaviors (for example, human resources, law enforcement, security, mental health clinicians)?
Those who threaten schools are often looking for “disruption” and “entertainment,” says Amy Klinger, director of programs for the Educators’ School Safety Network. “If we automatically react every time, we unwittingly encourage more bomb threats.”
Furthermore, some schools’ evacuation protocols are dangerous, says Klinger, also a former educator and school administrator. Evacuating children to a parking lot or football stadium, without first ensuring the parking lot or stadium is threat-free, may be moving students into another danger zone.
Shutting down, as LAUSD did, has risks, too. Many students lack adult supervision during the day; one LAUSD student was hit and killed by a truck during the December 2015 shutdown.
How to analyze the danger
Forming a district threat assessment team is one of the best ways to evaluate the risk and respond appropriately, experts say.
Thorough threat assessment can prevent both over- and under-reaction while prioritizing safety, says Dewey Cornell, director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia and principal developer of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines.
“Threat assessment is a structured framework you can use to look at each case carefully, gather some systematic information and try to resolve it,” Cornell says.
The U.S. Department of Education and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommend that all schools develop and train a threat assessment management team.
Guidelines to follow
That team should include an administrator, law enforcement officer and mental health professional, as well as teachers and other staff who may be familiar with the person who made the threat, if it’s a student.
The team should be convened and trained during a time of relative calm, likely as part of a district’s overall safety planning. During training, the group will learn how to work together and how to identify and react to substantive versus transient threats.
When a threat comes in, the team reviews the available information, including the specificity of the threat. Substantial and specific threats may require lockdown or evacuation.
A threat determined to have been made by a student in anger or as a joke would not require evacuation; disciplinary action or counseling would be more appropriate. In that case, the team can interview the student involved and review his or her school records.
If witnesses are available, team members would interview them as well.
Carefully considering such variables allows top administrators to tailor their response to a threat.
“The more specific the threat is, the more concerned you should be,” says Klinger, of the school safety network. For instance, the word “bomb” scrawled on a bathroom wall isn’t nearly as ominous as a note that says, “The bomb in the cafeteria is going off at 12:02.”
Don’t expect responding officers or emergency officials to make the call to close school. “FEMA and Department of Homeland Security language is very clear: On-site decision-makers make the decision about whether or not to evacuate,” Klinger says.
Keep the community informed
When an incident occurs, parents and community members want information ASAP. A Queen Creek Middle School student in Arizona recently reported a threat via social media, and “we were fielding phone calls from parents even before we could type up a release,” says Perry Berry, superintendent of Queen Creek USD.
Fortunately, the district had prewritten communication templates on hand, created in conjunction with its communications department. Staff members simply filled in the details, such as “possible threat being shared via social media,” and “put in place a low-level lockdown which was lifted after approximately 10 minutes.”
That’s a smart move, Klinger says. “We always advocate that you write templates in advance. When an incident occurs, you tweak it, but it was written when you had time to think about what you’re saying.”
Queen Creek also coordinated its messaging with the Maricopa County sheriff’s office. “We want to make sure that we’re sending consistent messages,” Perry says.
That kind of cooperation allows school staff to reassure parents their children are safe while protecting the integrity of the investigation, as police often want to control the release of certain details.
Developing a threat assessment team and protocols may seem time-consuming and overwhelming, but taking action now can save time later and improve the educational atmosphere of your district.
“If we frame our violence prevention efforts around our core mission of helping all kids to succeed,” says Cornell, of the Virginia Youth Violence Project, “it becomes much easier and not as vexing a problem as it seems.”