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When a school is threatened, the protocol is to treat the threat, then determine its credibility. Despite the location or extenuating circumstances surrounding a threat, there is no easy answer for school administrators who must quickly determine how to respond under pressure.
School principals must make fast decisions about the safety of their students while considering the likelihood of a hoax. Administrators have had to make those fast decisions in recent weeks in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland, to name a few.
As hoaxes become an almost daily occurrence in the U.S., this possibility makes it all the more difficult to assess a threat's reality.
"I would certainly say that in the recent past there have been an increase of threats," said Ray Kelly, former NYPD commissioner and vice chairman of K2 Intelligence.
Though it seems there is nothing to lose by evacuating a school and being safe, there are significant costs associated with the growing number of school closures. In fact, the price tag can be staggering.
The Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) closure last month received significant attention when, upon receiving an electronic bomb threat, it closed more than 900 campuses and 187 public charter schools. According to officials, the decision made by the nation's second-largest school district kept approximately 640,000 students out of school, costing the district at least $29 million.
Part of these expenses can be attributed to California law penalties, such as loss of instructional minutes and loss of average daily attendance, but a large portion came from the Los Angeles Police Department in traffic safety and overtime costs.
LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines stated that schools were inspected following the threat, a move that also incurred a large cost based on the number of schools in Los Angeles.
Although a generalized threat is less likely to occur, the lack of specificity often calls for a protracted search, according to Kelly.
After a vague, anonymous school tip was received by the Louisville, Kentucky, Metro Police Department, the Jefferson County (Missouri) Public School System (JCPS) sent parents a note alerting them to the threat. The district was also apprised of the situation through email and an alert system that sends text messages to phones. Made on a Wednesday afternoon in early January, the threat was against unspecified educational institutions on Friday so parents were given the option of deciding whether to send children to school on that day.
That Friday, all of the 155 JCPS schools operated on level three security, which meant that outside doors were closed at all times, hallway traffic was minimized, and outdoor activities were canceled. However, only 45.5 percent of the approximate 101,000 JCPS students attended classes. Normal attendance is 93.6 percent.
"We spoke with police, and it was a nonspecific threat that was made, but we wanted to be transparent by communicating with parents directly," said Allison Martin, JCPS' communications chief. "My children were in school. I knew they were safe and that the precautions were appropriate."
Across the country, schools receive federal funding based on the number of days schools are open. JCPS did not lose federal attendance reimbursement dollars because of low attendance that day as they are allowed to throw out their five lowest days of attendance. They did lose $175,000 from school lunch federal reimbursement, according to Martin.
"The actual out-of-pocket expenses are difficult to identify as they vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction," said Kelly.
Since violent crimes know no geographical boundaries, threats can also be made across different states thanks to the use of the Internet, which at times fosters these types of incidents.
Earlier this month, a series of "robo-call" bomb threats were made to more than 13 schools in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. There were no bombs discovered but schools were evacuated for several hours.
One week after the wave of these robo-calls, at least a dozen schools across eastern Massachusetts also received bomb threats made by phone including automated phone calls that were determined to be unfounded.
"Despite the fact that this was a widespread issue, we take these threats very seriously," Kathleen Bodie, superintendent of Arlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, said in a statement. "Given the police presence and investigation, and out of an abundance of caution, we decided it would be in our best interests to release students, faculty and staff for the day."
Even if a school closes for a few hours, students and staff are forced to stand outside in the cold while law enforcement officials conduct a sweep of the building.
"Though we cannot put a quantitative number on the threats made, they do have an effect on the economy as a whole because if you have one threat, other people may get ideas and the threats could increase exponentially," said Michael Knight, a special agent and public information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
There have been some copycat cases up across the country in the last few months that have not proved real, but were taken seriously by law enforcement, Knight noted. The ATF and the Department of Education distribute one-page of protocols and a delineated process on how best to handle threats.
Because of this required response, false alarms also cost first responders time and prevent them from responding to issues that are actually occurring. Still, hindsight is always 20-20, and it is difficult to argue that erring on the side of caution in order to protect children is a waste of money.
"School districts must follow the steps in place to handle threats," said Knight. "The threat could be isolated in a small town or big city, but any threat that is received by law enforcement needs to be taken seriously."