Article originally published in Education Review, original article available here.
New South Wales schools haven’t had it easy as of late: bushfire closures, COVID-19 interruptions, cyber attacks. Now, schools are facing their latest crisis – a spate of bomb threats, prompting evacuations across the state.
Recently, more than a dozen NSW schools have received bomb threats, either by email or phone. With students sitting HSC exams, schools have had to evacuate. And now, the state’s top police cybercrime force, working closely with federal police, has convened a strike force to investigate the incidents.
So far no one has been harmed; exams have been interrupted, as students have had to leave school grounds. But the incidents themselves, many of which are hoaxes sourced back to eastern Europe, are being taken seriously in a nation that’s already in a heightened state of alert for terrorism.
Bomb threats a global crisis
These type of security incidents are not uncommon around the world. Before the COVID-19 crisis, bomb threats were on a sharp rise across US schools and colleges.[i]
Elsewhere, explosives-related incidents (including hoaxes, false threats, and foiled detonations) represented a serious threat, as well. The number of actual explosions had been trending higher in Europe, for instance.
For our part, Australia and New Zealand averaged around five bomb threat incidents per month over a 12-month period during 2017-2018, with educational institutions consistently targeted.[ii]
Preparations often ineffective
Unfortunately, efforts to prepare for these types of incidents are frequently insufficient and costly. By now, emergency plans are prolific. Yet many of those plans don’t specify how schools will maintain continuous operations or recover after an incident.
Then, there’s the matter that most bomb threats rarely involve the actual delivery or detonation of explosives. Nevertheless, the costs associated with these incidents, from school closings to bomb searches, are very real.
So, what can be done? Emergency incidents themselves are highly fluid situations. At the same time, they require a rapid, disciplined response. As such, they present multiple planning challenges, especially for schools and districts who shoulder the burden of responsibility for keeping students, faculty and staff safe.
Get specific with scenario planning
One alternative to broad-based emergency plans that cover all evacuation scenarios is tailored, bomb-threat-specific scenario plans. These plans, taking into account a school’s existing security posture, the design of its campus, and local law enforcement’s response capabilities, would list out specific protocols to follow in the event of a bomb threat, define roles and responsibilities of team members, as well as provide clear action plans for teams to execute.
What should schools be striving for? Best-practice plans of this type offer clarity into how schools will meet bomb-threat related challenges. In particular, they anticipate processes for resuming operations. They also provide guidance on reporting incidents out to relevant government and public-safety agencies as well as communications to parents, the press, and the public at large.
Addressing the security crisis facing schools
Of course, bomb threats, hoaxes or otherwise, aren’t the only security incidents that schools face. Active armed offenders, intruders, and assaults all remain looming threats. Australia is highly climate-vulnerable, too. And natural disasters, like bushfires, floods and cyclones, can create emergency evacuation scenarios, compromising student and staff safety.
Noggin, a safety and security management technology company, has noted, though, that schools and districts rarely track, report and manage these incidents with the same tools and processes. They, therefore, fail to gain a single operating picture of a given situation in a school, or across multiple schools, without having to wade through conflicting sources of information.
Instead, investing in a single, flexible platform to manage all critical security incidents, whether at the individual school or all-district level, is a practical solution. That platform should come with functionality for incident drills and reporting, emergency communications for evacuations, lockdowns, and shelter in place, as well as plan templates for responding to various types of incidents or issues – or the ability for schools and districts to upload their own plans in digitised form so they are easily accessible during an incident.
Further, schools also have to manage routine student incidents, like submitting excursion risk and critical incident reports. Platforms should centralise the management of those incidents, as well, giving teachers a simple user experience for reporting.
In these challenging times, schools face threats from pranksters, malevolent agents, natural disasters, and of course deadly pathogens. Flexible platforms can help, providing a consolidated source of data to keep track and report on all incident types, ensure drill targets are met, manage the post incident stage, and ensure staff and students are made aware of critical incidents and know how to respond effectively.
James Boddam-Whetham is the CEO of Noggin.
[i] United States Bomb Data Center, 2018 Explosives Incident Report. Available at https://www.atf.gov/file/136971/download.
[ii] Counter Improvised Explosive Devices Centre of Excellence (CIED-COE) 2018, IED Incidents Summary June 2018. Available at https://ciedcoe.org/index.php/reports/cied-coe-reports/reports-2018/433-06-ied-incidents-summary-june-2018/file.