School Climate & Safety

Bomb Threats Taking Financial Toll

By Darcia Harris Bowman — October 02, 2004 11 min read
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Despite all its efforts to crack down on the bomb scares that disrupted classes again and again last year, North Carolina’s Orange County district fell victim to yet another false alarm this school year—on the very first day of classes.

And then again on the second day of school.

In all, classes at the district’s Cedar Ridge High School were disrupted by bomb threats six times between the first day of school, Aug. 10, and Aug. 24, district spokeswoman Anne D’Annunzio said. Each time, students, teachers, and staff members had to stand outside in the humid summer weather while county emergency-service responders and school employees searched the building for explosives that weren’t there.

For some schools, bomb threats have become more routine than fire drills, with each incident ringing up multi-thousand-dollar tabs for emergency manpower, special equipment, makeup instructional time, and other costs.

In nearly every case, the threat is just a prank. But school administrators, public-safety officials, and policymakers aren’t laughing. Many are fighting back with expulsions and suspensions for students, civil lawsuits against parents, cellphone bans, and new state laws carrying stiffer penalties for such pranksters.

In Orange County, two students were arrested Aug. 25 in connection with two of the recent threats made against Cedar Ridge High. The investigation is continuing and more arrests are possible, school officials say.

“We really have to nip this in the bud now,” Ms. D’Annunzio said. “There’s a mind-set that it’s just cute fun—a little prank and time outside for everyone.”

On the contrary, as Superintendent Shirley Carraway of the 6,600-student Orange County district wrote in a recent letter to parents and students, “multiple bomb threats can create a dangerous sense of complacency, a risk to safety in the event of an actual emergency.”

Safety experts agree that complacency is not something schools can afford in today’s environment of heightened fears about terrorism and school shootings.

“You’ve got to respond as if it’s the real thing every time,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center.

Mr. Stephen’s nonprofit consulting company in Westlake Village, Calif., reported that 5,000 bomb scares in the six months after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999 cost schools across the country thousands of hours in lost class time.

While no one group or government agency keeps a national tally on such incidents, experts agree hundreds of such threats are still made every year. But treating every one like “the real thing” can mean a heavy financial hit for districts already struggling with tight budgets.

‘A Nightmare’

Bomb scares can require repeated diversions of costly public safety resources and frequent disruptions of increasingly valuable class time.

Liza Muschette escorts her children out of Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School in Washington last spring after a bomb threat.
Liza Muschette escorts her children out of Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School in Washington last spring after a bomb threat prompted security measures at nearly all the public schools in the capital.
—Photograph by Gerald Herbert/AP

This past March, for example, in the early-morning hours of the first anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, police in the nation’s capital were forced to search nearly all of the District of Columbia’s 167 public schools and learning centers as well as many Washington private schools when a private telephone operator received a text-message threat that bombs in “five D.C. schools” would detonate by noon.

A spokesman for the District of Columbia police said the department had no tally on what the response to the threat cost, but the search operation was considerable.

All police commanders throughout the city were directed to dispatch officers to schools in the 65,000-student district to conduct searches with school security and maintenance personnel, while teachers tried to carry on with classes.

The police department also placed its explosives-unit personnel on stand-by, along with the bomb-sniffing dog units of the U.S. Park Police, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the regional transit police.

Even the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and the U.S. Secret Service were called in to help investigate the source of the threat. The investigation remains open and no arrests have been made.

Much smaller communities and school systems also report spending considerable amounts of time, resources, and energy responding to such threats.

The 11-school Orange County district, located 30 miles west of Raleigh, N.C., was subjected to at least 20 bomb scares last year. Even though investigators never turned up explosives, the schools were evacuated every time, and emergency responders were called in to investigate.

Michael H. Tapp, a deputy director of Orange County Emergency Services and the county fire marshal, estimates that each bomb scare costs his office, the fire department, and the sheriff at least $2,000 in salary, benefits, and other costs. Plus, he says, the hoaxes tie up at least one half-million-dollar firetruck, a patrol car or two, and a minimum of 16 emergency-service workers that may be needed elsewhere.

The school district concurs with his estimates. It informed parents in the Aug. 16 letter that each threat costs the district and community at least $1,500 to $2,000.

But that tally doesn’t include the lost productivity for students and teachers, Ms. D’Annunzio points out. “It’s a nightmare every time it happens,” she said.

Fighting Back

Like other threat-weary school districts and communities, Orange County now deals harshly with those who call in bomb scares and similar hoaxes—pranksters who are most often students.

After twin bomb threats on the first two days of classes in August, the district sent home the letter to parents reminding them of the consequences for such infractions. A perpetrator can be slapped with a felony charge, a 365-day suspension, revocation of his or her driver’s license, and a civil lawsuit of up to $25,000.

Last school year, the district pressed criminal charges against at least six of its students for such incidents, Ms. D’Annunzio said. They were all found guilty of making a false bomb threat, and some of the teenagers are now serving their one-year suspensions in the district’s alternative school program.

In each case, the district sought publicity for the arrest and sentencing as a way of warning other would-be hoaxers.

“It’s sad, because the ones we’ve caught have all been students, and a lot of times they’re kids who have never been in trouble before,” Ms. D’Annunzio said.

Still, she added, “the year before last we didn’t have any bomb threats. It’s the kind of thing that feeds on itself, so we have to be aggressive.”

School safety consultant Kenneth S. Trump suggests that schools mount pre-emptive strikes against bomb threats by putting students on notice that everyone will pay the price for the hoaxes.

“I recommend administrators have a serious discussion with students that consideration will be given to extending the school day and the school year to make up the time lost while responding to bomb threats,” said Mr. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

“It may sound simplistic, but it’s very effective because it makes kids mad,” he said. “How do you find the perpetrator? You find out from other kids.”

Mr. Trump also advises schools and communities to ban or severely limit student use of cellphones and pay phones during the school day—a move adopted by the Orange County district—and use caller identification to trace incoming calls to all schools and district offices.

States Take Action

Many of the consequences Orange County students face for making false bomb threats against their schools apply throughout North Carolina, thanks to a law passed last year by the state legislature.

Several other states, including Michigan, New York, Ohio, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, have also passed legislation or strengthened laws already on the books in an effort to slow the flood of bomb threats against schools, a problem that safety experts say hit its zenith during the year following the Columbine shootings.

In New York state, for example, calling in a bomb scare or other phony disaster threat to emergency services is a misdemeanor the first time and a felony for subsequent offenses. Planting a fake bomb on school grounds and calling in a false bomb threat to a school are both felonies; those convicted lose their driver’s licenses for a year.

New York’s law also allows a district to seek restitution of up to $5,000 from the parent or legal guardian of a child age 10 to 18 who falsely reports a bomb threat, or places a fake bomb, for the expense of responding to such a report or incident.

In Vermont in 1997, legislators amended a state law that already authorized a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for a first bomb hoax. They increased the possible penalty to up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. A second offense carries a potential prison term of up to five years and a $10,000 fine.

The changes were made at a time when a handful of districts were grappling with a rash of bomb threats, said William Reedy, the general counsel for the Vermont education department.

The law was revisited in 1999—the year of the Columbine shootings—to suspend the driver’s licenses of school-age pranksters for 180 days for the first offense and for two years for a second offense.

While Mr. Reedy cautioned that there’s no proof the changes in the law have anything to do with the decrease in the number of bomb threats against Vermont schools in recent years, he reasoned that the stricter penalties probably didn’t hurt.

“I think most people weren’t aware of the law before the changes, so just the publicity may have helped,” Mr. Reedy said. “If you’re a 17-year-old student who doesn’t want to take an exam, you probably wouldn’t be fazed by a change in a prison term from one year to two. But just learning that you could go to jail [for making a false bomb threat] might do the trick.”

And students across the state also “got to see a couple of teenagers led away in handcuffs for doing this sort of thing,” he added. “That might have had an effect, too.”

Making Them Pay

Beyond tougher criminal sanctions, civil lawsuits are another deterrent available to districts plagued by bomb threats.

“Schools and public-safety officials should be prepared in advance to document to the penny the costs incurred to respond to every single bomb-threat call,” Mr. Trump advised. “And for restitution to really deter threats, you not only have to do it—you have to publicize it before and after the fact.”

Wanting to send a strong message from the start—and to recoup at least some of the losses—some schools and communities haven’t hesitated to hold the families of local bomb hoaxers responsible for damages.

In Amherst, Va., a juvenile-court judge sentenced two pairs of teenage boys in 2001 to pay restitution to the local sheriff’s office and the Amherst County school system for the costs incurred in two phony bomb threats made against the town’s high school in the space of a month.

John C. Walker, the superintendent of the 1,400-student school system north of Lynchburg, said he recalls that the district submitted modest bills to the court of several hundred dollars for each scare, even though the school had to be completely evacuated during one of the incidents.

The district based its estimates on the salary and benefits of the school employees directly involved in responding to the threats and the time those staff members lost during each incident.

The culprits were Amherst students, after all, Mr. Walker reasoned, “and we would have had to be a lot more creative in calculating those costs if we wanted to factor in the disruption of the school day and lost productivity.”

The 770-student Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, Vt., attempted to do just that in 1996, when it filed three civil lawsuits against the alleged perpetrators of a series of telephoned bomb threats.

Initially, the high school threatened to seek as much as $26,000 per family—the average daily cost of running the grades 7-12 school.

After a string of bomb threats, “we had an education board that was getting very angry and the community was getting pretty ripped too,” said William J. Mathis, the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast school district, which includes Otter Valley Union High School. “The $26,000 is where we started, because in a civil lawsuit you talk about the damages done to you and that’s what we believed we lost.”

Filing for monetary damages against students who make bomb threats is an approach few districts and schools have taken, but Mr. Mathis said his district would probably do the same thing today because just the possibility of such large fines makes an effective deterrent.

In the end, however, the teenagers’ families were spared the cost of reimbursing the district for the lost days. In a plea agreement, the school system settled for 100 hours of community service for each student. One student over the age of 18 was also prosecuted on criminal charges.

“We did not collect cash or foreclose on anyone’s home, and the community service didn’t come close to covering our costs,” Mr. Mathis said. “But these students got to see the inside of a court room and they were served papers.”

In North Carolina, Orange County school officials have been aggressive about pressing criminal charges, but the district and local emergency-service providers have yet to file a civil lawsuit against a guilty student’s family.

The county fire marshal said that day may be coming soon, however.

“I suspect that if this continues, in the future we’re going to start seeking restitution, because this is getting expensive,” Mr. Tapp said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Bomb Threats Taking Financial Toll


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