Bomb threats at schools

Bomb threats at schools

"No textbook for this"

School districts scrambling to deal with outbreak of threats
Kentucky School Advocate
December 2015
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff Writer
Burgin Independent, a tight-knit, single-building PS-12 school district of just over 500 students, is an unlikely target for a threat.

So it surprised Superintendent Martha Collier when students reported a scrawled general threat in a boys restroom stall at the end of the school day, Oct. 21. What surprised her even more was when she learned that a couple of other students had seen it the night before but didn’t report it because they thought it was a joke.

“That was concerning – that they saw it on the wall and they didn’t take it seriously,” she said.

The investigation by the school district and Mercer County Sheriff’s Office was made more complicated because of that information – many more hours of hallway security camera video had to be reviewed as a result. And because the school had hosted two teams in a volleyball tournament the night before, “that just added more layers,” Collier said. “It just seemed like the more we investigated it, the more confusing it became.”
Officials spent four or five hours on the case the evening of the discovery and the entire following day, requiring cancellation of school. Classes resumed on the 23rd with additional police presence and the counselor available to talk to any students who were fearful; attendance was down only in the elementary grades, Collier said.

The district immediately took steps to emphasize the importance of reporting, with the principal and counselor making the rounds of classes telling students “not to assume these kinds of actions are a joke and they should tell somebody,” Collier said.

As of mid-November, no one had been charged in the threat, despite a reward offered by the local Crime Stoppers.

Burgin’s experience encapsulates the range of headaches school officials have experienced during this fall outbreak of threats, bomb and otherwise, in more than a dozen school districts – some of them in more than one school and some individual schools the target of multiple threats.

“There’s no textbook for this,” said Don Martin, coordinator for technical training assistance at the Kentucky Center for School Safety. “Every situation is unique and every school is unique. So one size does not fit all, and that’s what makes it so difficult for school administrators – there is not a prescribed plan in each instance. You’ve got to really analyze your community, your own school, your own clientele in the situation that is developing at the time in order to make a decision.”

KCSS Executive Director Jon Akers said school administrators have been trained to deal with immediate bomb threats – which call for evacuation procedures – but not in how to handle written terroristic threats, which most of the time are focused on a specific date. He said this year’s spate is unprecedented in his 15 years with the safe schools center.

Martin and Akers think the threat that shut down Eastern Kentucky University for three days in October was a factor in at least some of the K-12 incidents. Many times the threat is meant to extend a scheduled break, to disrupt the education process or to gain attention, Akers said.

The students involved in making threats generally are “kids nobody knows,” said Todd County Attorney Mac Johns, who also is Todd County school board’s attorney.

“And in our public schools there shouldn’t be a kid that some adult at the school has not taken some interest in,” he said.

School personnel should “keep their eyes and ears open,” said Martin, a former Grant County Schools superintendent.

“These things often become rumors throughout the school before they actually occur. So there are some things you can do on the front end: knowing who’s in your building, knowing who’s in and out of your classrooms at any particular time is going to be very helpful,” he said.

If the custodians are told to check restrooms every half-hour, for example, administrators need to make sure that is being done, said Martin, who used the strategy when threatening messages were made at a school in Grant County.

When a threat is received, any decision by school officials on how to respond should be made in consultation with law enforcement and other first responders. “It’s a corporate-decision type of situation,” Akers said.

Most threats are hoaxes, Martin said, “but at the same time you have to keep in the forefront of your mind that safety is your No. 1 priority, of students and staff, and you have to consider every precaution” when deciding how to respond.

It’s also important to keep in mind that “Every action you take sets a precedent for the future, so school leaders need to be careful and to think through all options carefully,” Martin added.
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