Kentucky School Advocate
By Jennifer Wohlleb
Bomb threats are tiring, time consuming and nearly impossible for schools to get right, according to James Stephens owner of SafeTSources and a Kentucky State Police officer.
“You make a decision to evacuate, well, you’re wrong,” he said during a session he led at the annual Safe Schools and Communities Conference in June. “You make a decision to keep (students) in, you’re wrong. So we’ll talk about that, how to make those decisions, why we make those decisions and we’ll talk about prevention.”
PHOTO: James Stephens, near left, owner of SafeTSources and a Kentucky State Trooper, answers questions following his presentation at the Safe Schools and Communities Conference.
He said what schools do in the aftermath of a bomb threat directly determines whether there will be more.
“In my experience, what we do with that bomb threat will most likely determine what’s going to take our time tomorrow,” Stephens said.
The most important thing in prevention planning is open communication, according to Stephens.
“You need to have dialogue with your fire department, your emergency management directors, your police departments, your hospitals,” he said. “All of those are your stakeholders and the time to create those relationships is before this happens. Bomb threats are normally where I see the most confusion about who is in charge, and I have no idea why.”
He said it also is important to determine who in the school or district is going to be the incident commander, as well as the backup. That allows for clearer communication and less confusion.
Part of a school’s prevention protocol should include having faculty and staff do daily sweeps of their areas of responsibility.
“At the beginning of your school day, most teachers and faculty go to a certain spot, do they not?” Stephens asked. “Every morning set up an announcement, ‘Faculty, make your daily area inspection.’ It does multiple things; they are just standing outside their classrooms and looking for anything outside of the ordinary. There’s no one in your school that knows what is out of the ordinary, who knows what ordinary is better” than your faculty and staff.
Stephens said if he or other emergency responders enter a school looking for a bomb, they have no way of knowing if the boxes stacked in a certain spot are normally there or not.
“But if you’re a teacher in that area, you know if something doesn’t look right,” he said.
School leaders also must consider both their evacuation routes and assembly areas in the event students must leave the building.
“I’ve done a lot of trainings and what I’ve found is that a lot of these (schools) have the exact same evacuation routes and they have the same exact relocations almost every year,” he said. “I don’t recommend that. Now, you are going to be limited in what you can do.”
Stephens said someone with knowledge of how the school will react can set up along the evacuation route or at the assembly area and either shoot at students as they leave or even place bombs along the route. He said two students in Jonesboro, Ark., killed four students and a teacher and wounded 10 others after pulling the school’s fire alarm and then going outside and lying in wait for everyone to leave the building.
“I recommend that before you send students out, that you send out your route-evacuation search teams that go and walk the route first to see if there is anything there that is suspicious and someone needs to sweep the assembly area first,” he said.
Stephens said he is not a big fan of keeping students out of school for long periods during a bomb threat evacuation, because of copycats.
“I was talking to someone the other day and they went six months without a bomb threat and then they had five in a row,” he said.
It is important to publicize as widely as possible when the threat maker is caught, Stephens said, especially what the type of jail time and other punishments that person will face. He said that is often a deterrent, especially to other students who might be tempted to copycat.
“Craft your message to students to let them know the serious consequences if they make a bomb threat.” he said. He described how officials at one school, with the help of video, were able in less than an hour to identify the person who had left a bomb threat in a school bathroom and had that person in custody.
“They made sure it was known and they never had another bomb threat in that district for the rest of the year,” Stephens said.