The growing risks in school campuses

In recent years, we have seen high profile cases of school violence which include bomb-related incidents, sowing fear into the hearts of parents whose sole concern is the safety of their children.

What contributes more to the anxiety over these incidents is the growing number of bomb threats in campuses nationwide. Homemade bombs, it seems, are way easy to make these days, what with simple access to formula and procedures on making such on the Internet.  Thus, it is commonplace to hear about homemade bombs intentionally left on school grounds, or suspicious devices discovered idle in an unlikely campus area.

At the rate things are going, and as dreadful as it may sound, we might even hear of such threats extending to school and tour buses servicing grade and high school students daily or during educational trips.

Add to these the gang conflicts, fraternity wars, and random acts of terrorism which contribute to the growing apprehension over such acts of violence.

And since these incidents are often given ample media attention, one couldn’t help but wonder—how safe exactly are our campuses?

Local incidents of bomb-related incidents in the campus

Sometime ago in Mandaluyong city, some passersby called the attention of school officials to a suspicious box of evaporated milk left by an unknown person in front of the gate of the school facing the main road.  Fearing that there might be a bomb inside the box, the school’s security manager called the Bomb Disposal Unit of the nearby Police Station for assistance and barred everyone else to approach and  touch the box .   Upon opening the box, what appeared were just files of more empty milk boxes placed inside the empty box which could have been left by the owner, either by mistake or intentionally, to frighten the entire school community.  No bomb threat call was received, but the series of incidents of bomb threat related incidents in other schools made the administration take the more appropriate step to ensure safety of all members of the school community.

Sometime in February of 2008, classes in all levels in a Catholic school in the city of Manila were suspended and all students were evacuated in an area deemed safe within the campus after one of the school’s detailed security guards informed a school staff that he received a call around 9 AM with the message that a bomb was set to explode within the school campus.   The nearest police station was called and they immediately dispatched their bomb ordnance unit and after a thorough search of the campus premises, not even a trace of explosives were found.

In that same year, the school administrators of an exclusive Catholic school in Marikina had to suspend classes after receiving a telephoned bomb threat.  After a section-by-section inspection of the whole campus area by Marikina’s Bomb Disposal unit, who were personally accompanied by their Chief of Police, no bomb was found in the campus and the police declared that the bomb threat was just a mere hoax.

In 2009, a public elementary school in Quezon City also had its taste of not one but two bomb threats which forced the administrators to suspend classes for the day.  The threats were given through text messages received, first by a parent officer of the Parents-Teachers Association (PTA) and second by a school official, stating that six bombs were planted within the school campus. The messages specified that all bombs were planted in the grade two area.  But just like in the previous incidents in other schools, the bomb threats appeared to be far from being true and were considered as just a hoax.

Sometime in 2009, in one of the schools in Benguet, a school administrator received a text message from an unknown source warning him of a bomb that has been planted within the school compound.    The threat forced the school administrators to suspend classes as it created mayhem as soon as information leaked out.  However, after a thorough inspection of the whole campus by the police authorities, not a single bomb was found.    For the school administrator who received the threat, the incident was not to be treated as a laughing matter considering the resources and manpower that had been pooled to ensure security of the whole area and the safety of all students and the other members of the adult school community.

Midyear of 2009, news came out that an improvised bomb, allegedly planted by a separatist group in a province in Southern Philippines rocked a primary school.  Fortunately, there were no deaths nor injuries caused by what the military described as “premature explosion.”  However, based on the same report, two hours later, there was another improvised bomb found about 20 meters from the school which the military experts were able to detonate.

In Clrark Freeport Pampanga sometime in 2010, a bomb threat delayed almost four hours the educational tour of 542 students from Cavite who were riding in more than 10 buses.  One of the teachers received a text message from a mobile phone, warning that two buses included in the convoy were set to explode at around 10:00 AM.   The incident however served at least as a demonstration of the overwhelming response of the Subic- Clark- Tarlac  Expressway (SCTEX) Traffic Center, Public Safety Department of Clark Development Corporation, members of the Police force within the town, and the Philippine Air Force’s Explosive Ordnance.   They promptly responded upon receipt of the message. Fortunately, after a very comprehensive and detailed inspection of all buses that involved many police, safety personnel and three bomb sniffing dogs, the bomb threat appeared to be another hoax.   Teachers, administrators and parents of that school were in unison in showing their verbal appreciation of the very commendable move of all personalities who managed the situation. Just last year, a Catholic high school, also in Benguet, went into panic and the school administrators were forced to suspend classes when a teacher saw a piece of paper on the door of one of the classrooms.  According to the note, a bomb had been planted inside the campus and the school was being instructed to evacuate all of their more than a thousand students or they will die at exactly 3: 00 PM of that day.    Having received the report of the threat, the police immediately responded.  Even some media groups appeared on the scene upon learning of the situation.  As the police was not certain on the real status of the threat, they chose to play safe by clearing the whole campus of all its occupants.   By late afternoon, the campus was declared safe, and the threat tagged as just another hoax.

Also in 2010, two elementary schools in the city of Dumaguete suspended classes along with the suspension of the regular session of the city council and the evacuation of the capitol’s employees when the city’s police department received bomb threat thru their textline.  Again, the Police found no trace of even a single explosive after the bomb squad scoured the school buildings, the capitol legislative building and the two churches situated nearby each other.  The bomb threat was obviously another big hoax. The officials of the city government considered the incident as a wake up call for the authorities to devise a plan that would better prepare the city should incidents of similar nature occur.

Bomb-related incidents in other countries

Perhaps, one of the most well-known incidents of atrocities involving bomb explosion that happened in the remote past against a school was the destruction of the Bath Consolidated School in Michigan in May 18 of 1927.  Much of the said school building was blown up when dynamites planted by a disgruntled member of the school board exploded. A total of thirty- eight school children, one teacher and the school superintendent were killed plus a score of other school children injured.  It was just too fortunate that not all dynamites planted in almost all corners of the school building didn’t explode.  It was also a blessing in disguise that the school bus bound to take students to the school that day carried only half of its usual number of student passengers as it was examination day.  It was reported that the person who perpetrated this heinous act committed suicide by blowing up his own house, killing his wife in the process. (Ref.:  M.J. Ellsworth, “School Bath Disaster”)

Almost all Filipinos knew of the Columbine High School Tragedy.  But long before that shooting incident, the National School Safety and Security Services in the United States have recorded a number of cases of bomb-related threats and incidents:

  1. Eight boys confessed that they were able to make three homemade bombs, two of which were placed in a Minnesota Elementary School.
  2. A middle school student in Nevada brought to school up to a pound of ammonium nitrate.
  3. Up to 150 bomb threats were received by a Maryland school district just in one school year.
  4. A California Elementary School was forced to close when ten bombs, fireworks strapped to aerosol cans were discovered.
  5. An explosion in a high school locker in Kansas City in January1999 sent 11 students to the hospital.

While there was a spike in bomb threats immediately after the Columbine High School Tragedy, bomb threats somehow leveled in the months and years following that incident.

Bomb threats: are they for real?

One major problem facing most school administrators in our country is whether to do the necessary evacuation procedures or not in their school in cases of bomb threat calls.  Most of these cases have appeared to have been made by unidentified students seeking to disrupt the school day proceedings just to get out of school for various personal reasons like they are just too lazy to attend their classes, they are not prepared to get the scheduled quiz or periodical examinations, or just out of fun to see how the school would react in such situation.  Still other bomb threats could have been perpetrated by students who hold grudges against some personalities in the school – an anonymous bomb threat call is their way of getting even.  However, the possibility of a bomb threat perpetrated by an adult is also likely.  It could have been perpetrated by a former school employee who was dismissed from service due to some reasons or by any person outside who would want to extort money from the targeted educational institution.

In any case, true or not, bomb threats are suggested not to be taken lightly but instead, they must be treated seriously and thoroughly investigated and managed.

What to do in cases of bomb threats

It is a common observation that some schools in our country do not automatically evacuate their campuses upon receiving a bomb threat.  But many choose to play safe by doing what is suggested.  If not suspending classes, they evacuate the buildings and gather their students to a deemed safe hauling area.  However, decisions and protocols on these issues should be determined by school officials and their public safety partners (police or the fire department) as a part of their emergency planning process and prior to an actual incident of bomb explosion.

Conducting searches following the receipt of any bomb threat is another major issue for schools. Teachers and support staff are advised to conduct searches of their area for suspicious items when a bomb threat is received by the school.  The logical reason for this request is that the adult members of the school community (teachers, support staff, administrators, etc.) are assumed to be the most familiar with what does and what does not belong to the school campus, and therefore are the ones best equipped to recognize what is and what is not suspicious.  Public safety officials are not that familiar with the entire school premises particularly individual classrooms and offices.  But such a search must be contained with the given instructions only.  When a very suspicious object or package is discovered, it is highly advised never to touch it and just wait for the appropriate authorities to do the thorough inspection of the object.

Understandably, members of the school staff are oftentimes hesitant to grant this request. It seems that such apprehension stems from their perception of what is meant by a “search” by school staff.  For authorities who are the general responders in case of any bomb threat, search will always mean a visual search, not a physical search like moving around boxes or any suspicious item.  Any Public Safety Official certainly would not want the school officials to touch or move suspicious items detected by a visual search as this is a very risky act in case the bomb threat is true.   They simply give instructions to employees to look around and report suspicious items or things out of place so as not to compromise the general safety of everyone within the perimeter of the suspicious object and for the safety responders to smoothly make follow-up or appropriate inspections of those particular items.

It is best, then, to include bomb preparedness strategies in School Safety and Emergency Preparedness Guidelines such as:

1. Involve the local enforcement authorities nearest to your school in determining protocols for bomb threat evaluations and procedures for evacuation.  Short and distant evacuations must be considered including the alternative sites and procedures for transportation in case needed.

2. Make training available to all school personnel, teaching and non-teaching including school bus drivers and secretaries who are most likely to receive bomb threats.

3. Include in the training topics like checklists management, search procedures, evacuations, and recovery.

4. It will also be advisable to include transportation facility and school bus security into the school’s security plan.  School bus drivers are also deemed to have a vital role in bomb threat and suspicious device training as school buses are not far from being targets of bomb threats.

5. We may place caller ID in our school phones which may help us identify bomb threat callers.  Enabling voice mail and recording calls for security purposes might be a big help.

6. Evacuating students into the school parking area is not advisable as this might further increase the risk of potentially exposing them to any additional explosive devices that might have been placed in any of the parked vehicles or hidden in places within the parking area.

7. It is good practice for schools to place filters on their school computers to prevent students from gaining access to bomb-making websites.  It is also advisable to secure chemicals in the science laboratory and be cautious in releasing cleaning materials to prevent or reduce risks of unauthorized access to chemicals for making homemade bombs.

CONCLUSION

Deciding what to do with bomb threats is really a very big challenge to any school administrator and their school safety partners.  It will always be best for the adult members of the school community to have a thorough knowledge of the practical strategies for handling bomb threat incidents most especially in the evaluation of  the threat and making a decision on how to respond.  But the best initial step in managing bomb or bomb threat call is always to abide by the rule, “DON’T PANIC!”