Though real bombs are almost never preceded by warnings, school districts need step-by-step policies in place to respond to every incident, law enforcement officials told educators at a recent school safety and security workshop.
“There are a number of school districts here that have had bomb threats this year,” said Michigan State Police Sgt. Joe Roney, who serves on the bomb squad. “If you haven’t had one, you’re probably going to get one at some point.”
The workshop involved school leaders from several Kent ISD districts and representatives of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, Kent County Health Department, Michigan State Police and FBI.
“We have not had an explosive device preceded by a threat,” Roney said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Typically with bad guys and guys that blow stuff up, they aren’t going to phone you and let you know they are going to do it.”
The group focused on an all-too-common scenario unfolding nationwide this school year: An anonymous threat is called or emailed to a school, resulting in lockdowns, investigations and anxiety among staff, students and parents. But rarely is full evacuation warranted, officials said.
“We are really getting away from total evacuation of schools, and we may not even evacuate at all based on the type of devices we see in the United States and the type of threats that are coming in,” Roney said. “Most of the threats are pretty generic: ‘There’s a bomb in the building’ or ‘We’re going to blow the entire school district up.'”
In many cases, students can stay in classrooms. Law enforcement should always be notified, but school personnel can look to see if anything is out of place, such as unknown packages, bags or backpacks, he said.
“It’s great to have the school ready to go with search teams,” Roney added. “In a generic threat, the school can pretty much say, ‘Nothing is out of place, everything is secure.'”
Repeated Threats Creating Disruption, Anxiety
For Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Michael Shibler, 12 threats have disrupted school days this academic year. The district has received the most in Kent County, resulting in bomb-squad searches with bomb-sniffing dogs and increased security measures. The investigation is ongoing, but officials would not comment on details.
Shibler follows these steps: call law enforcement, ask school personnel to search the building, e-mail parents, secure classrooms and lock entrance doors.
Parents know they will be contacted, he said: “We do everything we can to communicate in a positive, proactive way.”
Search, Bullying Goes Global
Investigating threats can be labor-intensive, and are often like “trying to look for a needle in a haystack,” said FBI agent John King. “Frankly you are chasing ghosts a lot of time, because of today’s technology.”
Searches have shown e-mailed threats coming from different countries. Three people overseas have been responsible for more than 5,000 threats to schools, airports, police departments and other entities, King said.
“You have unknown reasons why they are targeting specific areas, but what we have found is there’s typically a local individual that is the reason they are targeting an area.”
Often, it’s a result of online communication that provokes someone, he added. “It could be you were online tweeting about somebody and they didn’t like it. It is the new kind of bullying.”
Anonymity exacerbates the problem. Technology can be used to make communication appear like it’s coming from anyone in the world. “Spoofing” applications make calls appear likethey are coming from a different number, and young people are using social media with the intention that parents aren’t seeing it.
“You can sit behind this computer device and pretend to be anybody you want to be,” King said. “I can make myself look like I’m coming from France, Europe or wherever. It’s easy to do in a matter of minutes.”