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Assessing Threats Directed at School Facilities

While working as Chief of Campus Police for a large regional high school district, this author was summonsed by a school principal to assist with a full-scale evacuation after someone discovered the letters “Bo” written on a bathroom wall. When asked why he had evacuated the building, the principal related that he theorized that a student was about to write the word “Bomb” on the wall, when someone surprised him. The principal said that he doesn’t play God, and when there is any possibility that a person might be thinking about making a bomb threat, he evacuates.

Although it might not have been very obvious to the educated adults involved in making these decisions, it is hoped those of you reading this article are able to see how ludicrous such behavior is. The principal, who evacuated more than 2,000 students into a parking lot during a winter storm, was by far the biggest threat anyone faced in that school.

The fact remains that real bombers seldom call ahead. In fact, research conducted by the author failed to identify one incident involving a bomb threat that resulted in the actual discovery of a real bomb. The few incidents that did involve explosives in schools were not precipitated by warnings.

One specific bombing incident involved a 12th grade student in Medford, NJ. After months of taunting by a ninth grader, he placed a bomb in the younger student’s locker, hoping to put an end to the torment. Fortunately the locker was purchased from the lowest bidder and the rivets failed, causing the main force of the explosion to move upward, rather than outward. The target survived the blast. The point is, however, the bomber did not call in a threat because his motive for placing the bomb was to carry out an act of violence and he did not want his plans disrupted.

On the contrary, none of the hundreds of bomb threat calls handled during recent years involved explosives. The threat makers either did not have the capacity to make explosive devices, or they did not have the desire to detonate them. That was probably a very good thing considering the way many bomb threats are handled. Most readers will probably be able to reflect upon their participation in the evacuation and search of a school in response to a bomb threat. While doing so, answer the following questions:

What type of device were you looking for? Where could it have been placed? Did you open locker doors or desk drawers during the search? Did students evacuate through closed doors? Were students led into courtyards? Were you able to identify what items belonged in the school as opposed to what items might have been left there without authority? The absence of credible answers to these questions underscores the need to evaluate the threat. The short time it takes to gather answers to critical questions may be well spent toward achieving the goal of avoiding personal injury.

Bomb threats are so common and the placement of bombs is so rare, that people must conduct an assessment and avoid knee-jerk responses. The same is true regarding other forms of violence. There is little probability that the second grader who shouts, “I’m going to kill you” to the playmate who just took his ball, will carry out that threat. On the contrary, the target of constant bullying, who has admitted to having access to guns and has spoken of killing himself or his tormentors, might be someone worth looking into.

School officials should be encouraged to establish threat assessment teams consisting of representatives from various disciplines. The school nurse, head custodian, school security personnel, counselors, teachers, administrators and any other person capable of contributing needed services should be invited to participate. Whenever possible, a representative from the local law enforcement agency should also be on the team.

When a threat is received, any available members of the team capable of addressing the type of threat received should quickly assemble to gather and discuss facts. The building principal, a custodian and the police supervisor on duty might handle an urgent threat. For example: a teacher might discover a suspicious package with a threatening note attached indicating it contained a bomb. In that case, an order to evacuate the building appears warranted.

Another situation might involve an anonymous call from a pay phone located in the school where the caller simply stated “boom.” The principal or school resource officer might question teachers and students in the area of the phone and locate the caller, who admits to making the prank call as a joke. A further investigation might confirm that the call had no merit, thus eliminating the need to evacuate.

There are no guidelines or checklists available to provide clear-cut direction on what action should be taken for every type of threat. Each situation has to be evaluated independently. The evaluation should focus on the type of the threat, the person(s) involved, the capacity of the person making the threat to carry it out, and the ramifications of the different responses.

In going through the decision making process, school and police officials must seek input from as many people with relevant information as possible. The information should then be evaluated considering the merits present. The question “How likely is it that the person making the threat can actually carry out the threat?” should be discussed. Again, we cannot indicate that a school should never be evacuated; however, it can be suggested that other responses might be more appropriate if a first grader tells a classmate that he is going to “nuke him” during a game of kickball in the playground. It is highly unlikely that a 7-year-old has access to nuclear warheads and the capacity to deliver one.

The most important point is to gather information and make decisions based on facts. The IACP has developed a Guide For Preventing and Responding to School Violence. The guide includes a section discussing threat assessment teams. That manual can be accessed on the IACP Web site.

No one can predict how a police or school official’s actions will be accepted in the community or the courts, and there is no guarantee that civil litigation will not be initiated no matter what decisions are made. There is no “play it safe” response. The official who thinks conducting a full-scale evacuation on every possible threat is the best way to preserve his career is misguided. The best action is to consider as many opinions as reasonably possible based on the participants’ training, experience, conditions present and common sense.

The Secret Service Study

In 2000, the National Threat Assessment Center released the results of a study they conducted into 37 school shootings, involving 41 attackers. Some of the findings underscore the need to evaluate threats and the behaviors associated with them. The study revealed that in almost all of the incidents, the attacker had developed the idea to carry out a violent act before the attack. In over three-fourths of the cases, the attacker told someone about his intentions before committing the offense.

In more than two-thirds of the cases, the attackers reported being bullied by others before making the decision to retaliate against their tormentors. The study did not report an association between a verbalization of threats directly to the targets and the perpetrated acts of violence.

In 2001, the NJ State Police Arson Bomb Unit released a report compiled from standards established by the FBI and ATF, entitled Bomb Threat Management Planning For Schools. Among the primary points stressed in that report was the need to evaluate threats. Once that occurs, an appropriate response should be carried out.

The report recognized that there are four logical explanations for a bomb threat: The caller simply wants to disrupt normal school business; The caller wants to create an atmosphere of anxiety and panic, which in turn will also disrupt normal school activity; The caller may have definite knowledge or belief that an explosive device has been placed in the school; The caller is the bomber and wants to minimize the risk to people and only damage the building.

An important consideration during the evaluation process relates to the way the threat was made. It is unlikely that a person who knows of an actual bomb, and wants to assist with removing people from harm’s way, will call in a vague threat. Simply stating “There’s a bomb in the school” or writing “Boom” on a bathroom wall, does little to accomplish that benevolent goal. The report provided four options during the evaluation process: Take no action; Search without evacuation; Initiate a partial evacuation and search; Conduct a complete evacuation and search. It specifically criticized the practice of having a blanket policy intended for use without any threat assessment effort.

It is never appropriate to take no action. For safety, as well as public relations reasons, all threats must be acknowledged. The fact that an evacuation was not ordered is not evidence that no action was taken. In fact, a great deal of effort might have been expended during the evaluation process.

Another point to be considered during the evaluation process is the potential of exposing evacuees to threats existing outside the building or within the evacuation route. Public safety and school officials must not lose sight of the fact that there might be a higher probability that physical injury will result from ordering a full scale evacuation than the possibility of explosives being present in school buildings.

If a violent perpetrator expects a school to be evacuated, such as the case in one school shooting, school officials will be unwittingly assisting him with carrying out his plan if they evacuate without conducting an assessment. It is questionable to evacuate a building based on a claim that “there is a bomb in the school” without first clearing the evacuation route to assure people aren’t being moved into the danger zone.

It is also a waste of resources to initiate official action against a student simply because a zero tolerance policy was enacted. If everyone involved in the process knows the student’s behavior is not threatening, and the policy should not apply under the circumstances, then they should not be lead like sheep through the process.

While school counselors and administrators are writing reports and wasting time dealing with that situation, they might not be available to address the student who really is a threat. As indicated earlier, that student might not point a chicken finger or utter a threat at his intended target; however, he might be sending messages of what his plans are. School officials need to be available and pay attention to those clues.

Handling threats directed at schools are best addressed through cooperation and planning. The time to learn about a school’s emergency response plan is not during a crisis. Police officials should take the initiative to meet with school officials to discuss these issues. Both groups should serve as resources for each other.

Police administrators should recognize that school principals are responsible for and in charge of school facilities under most circumstances. Unless a unique law exists in a certain jurisdiction, it is not the responsibility of the police to order an evacuation at a school based on a bomb threat alone. In many jurisdictions, the police lack authority to make such an order unless a suspicious device has been located. Having participated in dozens of threatening situations occurring on school campuses, the author underscores the advantage of establishing and maintaining a good police/school relationship. Most school officials will appreciate the opinions offered by officers as they wrestle with the challenges they face in responding to threats on their campuses.

The practice of ignoring all threats, or that of following cookie cutter policies, can no longer be accepted. All threats must be evaluated and an appropriate response, based on available resources, carried out. The subject is quite touchy and liability issues certainly exist. We cannot be specific on what actions the police should take when handling a threat, since every one is different. Nor do we not want someone deciding not to evacuate a school because they thought this article said that. I am strictly against the use of policies designed to establish uniform responses to all types of threats. Instead, establish and assemble threat assessment teams, and with the facts and conditions at hand, discuss the possible responses.

Martin J. Dunn is the Chief of Police in Jaffrey, NH, and Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice for Franklin Pierce College. He previously served 28 years as an officer in NJ, including seven as the Chief of Campus Police. Chief Dunn will be presenting a workshop on Threat Assessment at the 2003 IACP Conference in Philadelphia. He may be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2003

Rating : 4.5

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