Spate of bomb scares requires attention to student emotions

Spate of bomb scares requires attention to student emotions

(N.H.) After receiving a bomb threat, even an unsubstantiated one, schools should address students’ heightened anxiety before resuming regular instruction, experts say. Many, however, opt to go about business as usual in the days or even hours following an evacuation or lockdown.

Bomb threats were made in 17 states during a single week in May. In New Hampshire, where three separate middle schools were evacuated, according to various local news stations, K-9 units swept the schools and all students were back in the classroom before noon.

However, children are likely to feed off the concern expressed by responders, teachers and parents genuinely worried about the plausibility of an explosion on campus, according to experts.

“These situations serve as a reminder that we may not be completely safe, or at the very least, the adults around us worry that we might not be,” David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the University of Southern California, said in an interview. “Even though no bombs were actually found, the fact is that competent adults in leadership positions were concerned that they might be.”

Beside New Hampshire, other states in which districts received threats against schools included California, Delaware, Florida, Montana, Maryland, Oregon, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In total, nearly 50 schools were threatened in the United States during the week of May 23. An additional 21 calls threatening the use of explosives were also made to schools in the U.K. that same week. A handful of schools called parents to pick students up after evacuating campus or they bussed children home early. Others chose to continue classes after the threat had been deemed not viable.

There was a 158 percent increase in the number of threats of violence against schools between 2013 and 2014, according to National School Safety and Security Services. Yet, despite the impact on already scarce resources of responding to such incidents, only a handful states have laws that specifically penalize making threats against schools.

Although no one was hurt as a result of the recent threats, Schonfeld, who is also the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the USC School of Social Work, said that such events can still take an emotional toll on students – especially when they see the adults showing obvious concerns.

“While they may be unsubstantiated, they are true threats,” Schonfeld said. “You obviously don’t want the people responding to be cavalier about it, but when they aren’t being cavalier, that means they’re actually considering it, which is at the very least unsettling for a lot of students.”

In the months following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 Schonfeld said he remembers hearing about instances of children hiding in the closets or crying hallways during regular fire drills, often finding even the idea of a crisis overwhelming.

Because students may likely feel similarly after experiencing a bomb threat at their own school or seeing widespread coverage of students their own age evacuating or being placed on lockdown, it is equally important to acknowledge their concerns as it is to reassure them of their safety, Schonfeld said.

This is true, he said, even if the threat is found to be a hoax.

“There is the perception that there is an increase in concern, and it’s hard for people to figure out the absolute amount of the risk, but it’s more than it was yesterday,” Schonfeld said. “And I think that change is what is unsettling to people.”

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