Study finds rapid escalation of violent school threats

Posted by on February 9, 2015

[Originally published: 2/9/15; Updated: March, 2016]

A nationwide epidemic of violent school threats is breeding fear, anxiety and frustration for educators, children and parents. While the vast majority of these threats are anonymous and turn out to be hoaxes, they have to be investigated and taken seriously. Hundreds of schools are losing classroom teaching time, police are wasting resources, children are frightened, and parents are angry and alarmed.

“School threats are a fast growing problem. They send fear and panic through a community” says Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, who directed the study of threats across the country.

Ken shares insights in this video from our study of rapidly escalating violent school threats and what school leaders can do to prevent and manage them, or you may scroll down below now for details from the study.

Executive Summary: News you can use from our national school threat study

Here are the highlights of our groundbreaking national study of more than 800 violent school shooting and bomb threats…

What, when and where:

  • 812 school shooting and bomb threats targeting preK-12 schools collected primarily from news reports during the first five months of the 2014-15 school year (August-December, 2014)
  • 73% of the violent threats were shooting and/or bomb threats
  • Threats targeted schools in 46 states with the top 10 states receiving 55% of the 812 threats
  • The top 10 states in order were: OH, CA, PA, NY, FL, TX, MI, WA, MA, and CT (a full rank ordered list is below)
  • 70% of the threats targeted high schools, 18% targeted middle schools, 10% were directed at elementary schools, and 6% targeted entire school districts
  • Threats were evenly spread across all five school days
  • Threats were up 158% since the prior year, when we did the first study of this kind

How the threats were delivered:

  • 37% of the threats were sent electronically, using social media, email, text messaging and other online resources
  • Of the 37% sent electronically, 28% were social media threats
  • Seven references were made to swatting, a phenomenon that has dramatically increased since the original study according to our ongoing research (read more on swatting below)
  • Other threats included threats written on bathroom walls, phone calls, verbally communicated and delivered by other means

The impact of the threats:

  • 30% of the threats resulted in evacuations of schools
  • 10% of the threats closed school for at least the day of the threat
  • Many of the evacuations and closings were done prematurely and unnecessarily, which can expose children to greater safety risks
  • At least 320 arrests were made as of the time of the study, the vast majority of children from ages 8 to 18
  • Local law enforcement investigated the vast majority of incidents, with an emerging federal investigative presence (5%) becoming more common
  • Threats triggered a substantial disruption of the educational process and massive law enforcement responses, as well as an enormous amount of stress, anxiety and trauma in the schools and communities.
  • Financial costs for investigating the threats and heightened security costs serious money with costs ranging from tens to hundreds-of-thousands of dollars.

What it all means: School leaders are not powerless. Three priority recommendations for school policy and practice:

  1. Schools need to have threat assessment teams, training and protocols with first responders
  2. School leaders should have plans on how to heighten security while ongoing investigations are being conducted on threats made to the school
  3. Schools must have crisis communications and social media plans to communicate more effectively with students, staff, parents and the community to counter misinformation and reduce anxiety

Continue reading to learn more details from the study and its recommendations for prevention, preparedness and response.

The threats: How many, the type of threats and the top 10 states

We reviewed 812 school threats across the country, from August 1 to December 31, 2014 – the first half of the 2014-15 school year. Based on available data, threats were up 158% since the prior year, when we did the first survey of this kind. This rapid escalation of school threats requires urgent attention.

Bomb and shooting threats make up the majority, and that is where school administrators and police should focus their preparations and planning.

  • Bomb:                     359                  44%
  • Shooting:               234                  29%

It appears no school is immune. Threats are flying in 46 states. Here are the top ten, getting the lion’s share of threats (55%).*

  1. OH:  64
  2. CA:  60
  3. PA:   55
  4. NY:   46
  5. FL:   43
  6. TX:   41
  7. MI:   36
  8. WA: 37
  9. MA: 34
  10. CT:   29

Electronic threats, swatting emerge as major challenges

We found that electronic devices and social media apps are fueling the growth of these threats, especially with new, anonymous apps that young people are rapidly adopting. 299 threats (37%) were sent electronically, using social media, email, text messaging and other online resources. Social media threats, alone, account for 231 threats (28%). Threats are often posted on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Trendy apps like Yik Yak, After School and Whisper are creating special problems for investigators because teens can post anonymously, making it harder to track down offenders. These apps account for 45 threats across the country so far this school year.

There were seven references to “swatting,” a growing phenomenon of calls triggering massive police responses for hoax threats. Several cases crossed state and international borders.

In the months following this study, swatting incidents skyrocketed in the U.S. at times with robocalls and electronic threats sent to multiple schools, and schools across multiple states, on the same day.

Our ongoing research on swatting can be found in more detail including at:

High schools dominate threat targets, strike any day of the week

While high schools received 70% of threats, middle schools got 18%, and elementary schools got 10%. This is concerning, especially in light of Sandy Hook.

Six percent of threats were leveled at entire school districts, sending thousands of children home or putting them in lock-down or lock-in status inside their classrooms. Clearly, schools must plan for system-wide response and threat assessment at every level.

We also found the incidents were evenly spread across all five school days, dispelling the myth that more threats are delivered on Fridays so kids can get out of school for a long weekend.

Evacuations and closures: Reacting and then assessing rather than assessing and then reacting

Almost 30% of the threats involved schools being evacuated and nearly 10% closed school for at least the day of the threat. Oftentimes these evacuations and closures were done prematurely and/or unnecessarily.

Threats are causing a substantial disruption of learning and school activities. Threats sent electronically provide an initial challenge to school administrators and law enforcement in identifying the exact location, content and source of the threats. When students, staff and parents learn about the threats, rumors and misinformation typically spreads like wildfire on social media, fueling anxiety in the school community.

Our research found far too many schools reacting and then assessing, rather than assessing and then reacting when threats are received. School administrators and their crisis/emergency teams struggle to investigate the threat while simultaneously managing the community anxiety and crisis communications challenges that come with the threat. In many cases, school administrators evacuated and/or closed in response to the mounting community anxiety, social and traditional media pressures, and other crisis communications issues rather than in response to the actual credibility, or in most cases lack of credibility, of the actual threat itself.

Evacuating students and staff from schools or sending children home have safety consequences. While emotionally it is understandable why administrators and parents jump to evacuating students out of the school that received the threat, when administrators send children out of the school they risk exposing them to other threats outside of the school. Walking to a designated school evacuation site or taking them to another school decreases the ability of school administrators, staff and safety staff to supervise students and keep them secure.  In cases of threats with questionable credibility, the best place for students may be for them to remain in school under heightened supervision and security while the investigation moves forward.

Improved threat assessment and crisis communications preparedness can help school administrators avoid premature evacuations and unnecessary closings so learning may continue when hoax threats strike a school.

Heavy public safety and emotional costs for the school-community, tough consequences for threat makers

Police have made at least 320 arrests as of the time of the study. The vast majority are children, ranging in age from 8 to 18. And prosecutors in some states are slapping kids with felony charges of making terroristic threats. A conviction will mark them for the rest of their lives.

While local law enforcement officials were involved in the vast majority of these incidents, we found an emerging presence of federal law enforcement involved in school threat incident investigations. Almost 40 incidents (5%) referenced federal investigative agencies with the majority of them being the FBI.

These threats thrust school and law enforcement leads into the media spotlights with little warning. School officials were quoted in nearly half of the incidents reviewed with superintendents serving as spokespersons in about two-thirds of these cases where a specific school official was identified. Police chiefs and sheriffs were also quoted in many cases.

Investigating threats can cost some serious money, and threat makers can get hit with restitution.

Two 14-year old boys in Brookville, PA are accused of making a series of bomb threats to their school last fall. They could be liable for restitution totaling $25,000 to $35,000. That would cover the loss of 3,000 school lunches, plus $2,400 to pay for a team of bomb sniffing dogs, 50 hours of overtime for police, state police, sheriff’s department and other agencies.

In Onslow County NC, a teenager was arrested for calling in 20 bomb threats to schools and businesses. The investigation ran up a whopping bill of $240,000.

What cannot be calculated is the stress of dealing with threats, the drain on emotions, and the trauma to children, their families and school staff.

School leaders are not powerless: Study leads to clear policy and practice recommendations

“School leaders are not powerless,” says Trump. “Threats are manageable and preventable. Schools, police and parents need critical strategies that can help keep children and educators safer, and parents calmer.”

Three clear recommendations for school policy and practice in threat assessment and management were drawn from this research:

    1. Schools need to have threat assessment teams, training and protocols with first responders
    2. School leaders should have plans on how to heighten security while ongoing investigations are being conducted on threats made to the school
    3. Schools must have crisis communications and social media plans to communicate more effectively with students, staff, parents and the community to counter misinformation and reduce anxiety

Additional lessons from the study include:

    • Teachers and administrators need to create a trusting and connected school climate that will give them an early warning when rumors get started.
    • Educators and parents have to understand how kids use social media, and educate them about the harm that threats can cause.
    • School officials and police should use threat assessment protocols to determine if a threat is credible. This will reduce unnecessary evacuations and closings. School leader responses must shift from reacting and then assessing, to assessing and then reacting.
    • Solid crisis communication plans that give parents real-time information can greatly reduce anxiety, and get schools and parents working together. School districts should survey their parents to find out which communication channels they use and meet them there.
    • Communities need an easy way for kids, parents and schools to report threats and safety concerns using the latest electronic tools.

Our study was directed by Ken Trump and co-authored by Ellen Miller, crisis communications consultant to National School Safety and Security Services.

Contact Ken Trump for more insights on what we learned.

Visit our pages for free information on school threat assessment and management. Learn more here about our STAT: School Threat Assessment Training designed by school professionals for those managing threats on the front lines of our schools.

Ken Trump

National School Safety and Security Services

Experts You Can Trust! 

Visit School Security Blog at:

Follow Ken on Twitter @safeschools

Visit and “Like” Our Facebook School Safety News Channel at:

Total Incidents by State (High to Low):

    1. OH:  64
    2. CA:  60
    3. PA:  55
    4. NY: 46
    5. FL: 43
    6. TX: 41
    7. MI: 36
    8. WA: 37
    9. MA: 34
    10. CT: 29
    1. VA: 28
    2. NJ: 25
    3. GA: 23
    4. NC: 21
    5. TN: 18
    6. KY: 17
    7. AL: 17
    8. AR: 15
    9. MO: 15
    10. IL: 13
    11. IN: 13
    12. MD: 12
    13. OR: 12
    14. OK: 10
    15. WI: 10
    16. WV: 10
    17. IA: 9
    18. NM: 9
    19. CO: 8
    20. ID: 8
    21. MN: 8
    22. MS: 8
    23. AZ: 7
    24. KS: 7
    25. LA: 7
    26. NH: 6
    27. RI: 5
    28. ME: 4
    29. NE: 4
    30. UT: 4
    31. HI: 3
    32. MT: 3
    33. SC: 3
    34. DE: 2
    35. VT: 2
    36. WY: 1
    37. AK: 0
    38. ND: 0
    39. NV: 0
    40. SD: 0

3 thoughts on “Study finds rapid escalation of violent school threats

  1. Chuck Hibbert says:

    Great work! Our schools, both public and non-public need to wake up to these threats and be prepared to deal with them in a proactive manner. Schools must return to basic fundamentals and threat assessment is one of the fundamentals.

  2. Broeck Oder says:

    This is great to have in hand; just from following news stories and from observation in my own “slow-lane” part of Central California, I had the sense that such events were increasing. Thanks for the hard data!

  3. Asia Jones says:

    As a former principal and central office administrator who was tasked with crisis management and response, I understand the stress associated with threats to the school community. Today’s principals must be equipped with a threat assessment protocol and established plan of action to effectively and confidently guide their response teams. As referenced in the study, a responsive school community and positive school culture is the essential to preventing and responding to school threats.

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