What If It's Real?
Print Issue: November 2016
Bomb threats are on the rise, recent research and media reports show. In the first half of the 2015–2016 school year, U.S. schools experienced 745 bomb threats, an increase of 143 percent compared to that same time period in 2012–2013, the last year statistics were available, according to research by Amy Klinger of the Educator’s School Safety Network.
This trend of increasing bomb threats at schools comes as no surprise to Michael Dorn, executive director of the nonprofit school safety center Safe Havens International, and an expert who has been involved in school security for decades. “It [the statistical rise] matches in general what we’re seeing not just in the U.S., but internationally,” Dorn says.
Dorn sees a few possible factors behind the rise. One is that an increase in highly publicized terrorism activity often leads to an increase in other types of threats, including bomb threats. “A lot of threats seem to surge right after major events like Orlando and San Bernardino,” Dorn says, adding that such a pattern has held true since the 1990s, when threats increased in the wake of incidents like the Columbine shooting.
Another possible factor is that advances in technology, both in the United States and around the world, make calling in threats easier. To illustrate, Dorn cited a few international cases he has been involved in as a consultant. In one, a student in New Delhi, India, sitting in the back of a classroom called in a bomb threat using his cell phone watch. This triggered a panic—first his high school of 5,000 evacuated, and then nearby schools, seeing that evacuation, did the same.
In another incident, in eastern Europe, a student programmed a series of computer-assisted robocalls to call in repeated bomb threats to his school. When the calls were finally traced to the student, he confessed that he had been mocked in gym class when changing clothes, and he did not want to go through that humiliating experience again, Dorn explains. “It’s absolutely true that technology is making it easier to call in bomb threats,” he says.
These international cases also help show how bomb threats pose unique challenges from a security standpoint, experts say. The vast majority of bomb threats, such as the ones conducted by the previously mentioned international students, are hoaxes or false reports—upwards of 90 percent, according to one recent estimate. Indeed, the very fact that alleged bombers are offering advance notification of the act is an indication that they are, in all likelihood, not legitimate threats.
“If they’re serious about hurting people, they’re not going to be calling you to let you know that,” says Daniel Linskey, former superintendent-in-chief of the Boston Police Department, who helped guide the city through the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Linskey is now a managing director in Kroll’s Investigations and Disputes practice.
Still, such threats cannot be dismissed entirely, because the rare ones that are real have the potential to be devastating. Explosive devices placed in the cafeteria of Columbine High School by the student shooters in their 1999 mass attack ultimately failed to detonate. But if they had, they could have killed as many as 450 students, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Since many mass shooters also use explosives, Linskey says he finds the “active shooter” term too limiting. “I tell clients: ‘It’s not just an active shooter event. It’s an act of terror event,’” he says.
With bomb threats, part of security’s challenge is weeding out the fakes and determining which threats are credible. “Each threat has to be taken seriously and individually looked at,” says Linskey.
In this matter, Linskey advocates the use of a bomb threat checklist for assessing threats. For example, the checklist issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Bomb Prevention offers suggested procedures, a list of questions to ask the person calling in the threat, and a checklist to help characterize the caller’s voice, background sounds, threat language, and other circumstances of the call.
Checklist questions for the caller include queries about the bomb location and description and the detonation time, as well as if the caller placed the bomb him or herself, and why.
Linskey also recommends that the security officer or other employee who is engaging with the caller “ask some tough questions” to help assess if the threat is credible. Specific technical questions about the bomb, such as its materials and capacity, can help reveal if the caller is a serious individual who is knowledgeable about explosives, he explains.
Even simply asking the caller’s name, while it may seem unlikely to work, can be helpful. “They might be foolish enough to tell you what their name is,” Linskey says.
Although threats should be taken seriously, Linskey also recommends against overreacting–such as ordering an immediate evacuation when a threat is received. “Security officers and managers of facilities should wait until law enforcement arrives before evacuating a building,” he says.
In fact, Dorn says there has been at least one reported incident in Chicago where a fake bomb threat was called in as a diversionary tactic by a gang member to prompt a school building evacuation. In the chaos of the evacuation, a gang member shot and killed a rival gang member. “We find immediate evacuations to be a dangerous practice,” Dorn says.
And calls about alleged bombs are not the only threats that frequently turn out to be false. Chaotic large-scale attacks, such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the 9/11 attacks, sometimes include bomb reports that, while usually not true, require a security response. “At most major incidents, there will be multiple reports, and some of them are false reports,” Linskey explains.
Linskey cited the example of the 2013 Boston Marathon. After the initial two explosions in Copley Square, a report circulated that another (and possibly related) explosion had gone off at the John F. Kennedy Library, about four miles southeast of the original bomb site. An audio feed pulled from a police radio band was made public; in the feed, an unnamed officer described a “confirmed explosion” at the library. The “explosion” turned out to be an unrelated mechanical fire.
Similarly, after the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, reports of a car bomb near the U.S. State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., and an explosion near the Capitol building circulated on television news stations. Both bomb reports later proved untrue.
Moving forward, one trend Dorn warns against is a concentrated focus on active shooter training to the exclusion of other programs, such as bomb and suicide prevention and hazardous material protocol. “There’s so much emphasis on active shooter programs–so much time, energy, and money being spent on them,” Dorn says. This trend, he says, could have a negative effect on how bomb threats are handled.
He cites one controlled study that compared security programs before the Sandy Hook massacre and programs after, where the latter had active shooter training, such as Run. Hide. Fight. The group that had active shooter training scored lower when it came to making the best life-and-death decisions in exercises. For example, in a mock suicide drill in which a student held a gun to his head and threatened to shoot himself, more students in the active shooter training group tried to disarm him by attacking—a poor decision in a life-and-death situation.
Thus, the study may suggest that administrators must be careful to avoid such an exclusionary focus in the future. “To a hammer, every problem is a nail,” Dorn says.