An email at 10:55 a.m. Thursday from Vanderlyn Elementary School had Renee Harris wondering if she should get her daughters from school. For the second time in less than a month, the school was on lockdown from a bomb threat.
“Part of me doesn’t want to do that because it could create more fear,” she told The AJC in a phone interview.
The school was one of five in DeKalb County that received a threat Thursday morning. Others were Dunwoody High School and Chestnut, Dunwoody and Montgomery elementary schools. One of the schools, Dunwoody Elementary School, was evacuated as a precaution.
While none of the threats turned out to be credible (most aren’t), they disrupted learning, scared children and parents and pulled resources from other areas. Brookhaven and Dunwoody police said the Thursday threats appeared similar to those in November that involved a series of phone calls and social media posts police said were “prank threats.” In today’s vernacular it’s call swatting — calling in a hoax so emergency services dispatch personnel.
Hours after DeKalb school lockdowns were lifted, bomb threats flooded in to businesses in metro Atlanta, and nationwide, with some demanding payment in bitcoin. Those threats were also not believed to be credible.
Harris recalled the last time it happened, when her daughters hid in the bathroom for 25 minutes as school officials and police investigated a threat against the school. That day, three other DeKalb elementary schools were also placed on lockdown.
“We’re tired of this,” Harris said. “It’s scary when we’re seeing police swarm the schools, and we don’t know what’s going on. (Children) shouldn’t have to live like this and we shouldn’t have to live in fear.”
To combat these events, a united front among school administrators and police, local, state and federal law enforcement is becoming an effective tool, GBI Director Vernon Keenan said. And while civilians may not see a lot happening on the surface, he said agencies are working together to insure everyone’s safety as well as catch the perpetrators.
The agency has been working on school-safety initiatives for the past year with Georgia State Police, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Homeland Security department. An app and tip line called “See Something, Send Something” has been manned 24/7 since Aug.1.
“The most important component of any safety program is people calling in information,” he said. “In almost every credible threat at least five people had prior knowledge of what was going to happen.”
School threats are on the rise, even as the total number of U.S.bomb threats has dropped.
The number of total bomb threats decreased from a high of 1,724 in 2013 to 1,228 in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. And although data isn’t available for arrests, technology has made it more likely that a person sending threats will face criminal charges.
“And if they cross state lines or international borders, the consequences can fall on them like a ton of bricks,” said Ken Trump, national security expert.
But 20 percent of U.S. bomb threats are those made against schools, and the past year has seen a 30 percent increase in school bomb threats.
That didn’t go unnoticed Thursday — a day before the sixth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman shot and killed 20 children as well as six staff members before killing himself.
As the fear subsided, parents were upset about DeKalb County Schools’ communication process.
Dunwoody Elementary parent Felecia Wyatt said she received a text notification about the threat 10 minutes after she arrived.
“I saw the police come in and didn’t know what was going on,” she said. When the principal told her it was a bomb threat, she and her child left the school.
“I just thought it was the fire alarm going off because saw the lights flashing in the school,” she said. “I didn’t think too much of it until heard it was a bomb threat. I was upset, immediately grabbed my daughter and I left.”
DeKalb schools apologized for communication breakdown.
“Communications to parents at Dunwoody Elementary were not effective in this case due to violations of our emergency notification protocol, which led to communication occurring out of order and that was incomplete,” the district said in a statement.
John Snowden, a Montgomery Elementary parent, said he was in a meeting at his job in Smyrna when he received a text notification about the lockdown.
“She’s my only child. She’s in pre-K and only four,” he said as he was leaving the school. “There wasn’t a lot of detail in the alert, so I had a million different scenarios of what could be happening.”
Snowden said no one inside the school told him what was going on but he was told where he could pick up his daughter.
“They were being very quiet about the situation and weren’t giving any details,” he said. “I wonder why they didn’t evacuate the school instead of placing it on lockdown.”
Evacuation isn’t always the best solution, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
“Most schools are sound enough to protect most students if there was, in fact, a bomb,” he said. Something small enough to bring into a school unnoticed would most likely be detected by bomb-sniffing dogs or a general sweep,” Canady added.
A mass evacuation can cause chaos. Or worse, put students in the crosshairs of an active shooter.
That’s why training for such scenarios is important for police, school administrators and all school personnel.
“They know what to do and why to do it,” Trump said.
Hoax call or ‘swatting’?
Pulled fired alarms or phoned-in threats have been used by students, angry workers or family members for years to disrupt schools, businesses and lives.
“Swatting” is a fairly new term that refers to sometimes elaborate false phone calls or messages reporting extreme dangers that cause the dispatch of a police SWAT team and other emergency service workers. Police must take the call seriously, and that may result in forced entries or actions by officers. Earlier this year, a swatting “prank” call ended with a young man killed. The young man who made the call is facing more than 20 years in prison on multiple charges.
Technology that masks where a phone call or electronic message originates from typically plays a role in swatting.