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ARC: SURGE IN PUBLIC VIOLENCE

Rash of college bomb threats underscores need for emergency planning

Law requiring timely warning adds confusion

Louisiana State Bomb Threat
Photo by AP PHOTO Law enforcement officials used bomb-sniffing dogs to search Louisiana State University earlier this month following a bomb threat.

The recent rash of bomb threats at U.S. college campuses demonstrates the need for both well-rehearsed evacuation plans and systems to communicate quickly with potentially tens of thousands of students and employees, risk management experts say.

While a decision to evacuate is still a judgment call for college administrators — one with expenses that are likely to be uninsured, absent specialty coverage — the ability to warn of a threat and move people away from it has become increasingly important for schools, experts say.

“It has not been historically common to have (bomb threats) at all, certainly not a cluster like these,” said Teena Hostovich, Los Angeles-based executive vice president at Lockton Insurance Brokers. But they may become more common, she said. “The world is changing.”

Over a few days this month, bomb threats were phoned in or emailed to the University of Texas at Austin; Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge; North Dakota State University at Fargo; and Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio. The UT-Austin and LSU callers warned of multiple bombs planted around campus, and the Austin caller identified himself as a member of al-Qaida.

Authorities evacuated all four campuses and searched their buildings. The searches turned up no explosives, and the schools reopened within 24 hours. In the LSU case, police arrested a 42-year-old Baton Rouge man who was charged last week with making the threat.

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Meanwhile, a dorm at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro was evacuated and searched last week after a bomb scare; and police arrested a student at the University of Texas-Brownsville for allegedly phoning in a bomb threat targeting a fellow student.

The unusual spate of threats underscores the importance of emergency planning.

“You need to have a flawless evacuation plan, and you need to be running that well,” Ms. Hostovich said.

Plans should include steps for coordinating with local government authorities, directing evacuees to staging areas or to various types of transportation away from campus, and managing traffic and handling security within and at the perimeter of the campus, experts say.

Schools also need to be able to reach students and faculty quickly, and most long ago installed “reverse 911” systems that send emergency notifications via phone, email or text message, or through social media like Facebook.

UT-Austin, for example, transmitted 69,000 text messages to students, faculty and employees notifying them of the Sept. 14 bomb threat, according to the university.

Virtually every college in the U.S. has implemented such a system, and many are on the second or third generation of the systems, which have improved “by leaps and bounds,” said Rick Vohden, public entity and education practice leader with Marsh Risk Consulting in Morristown, N.J.

Still, the timing and content of emergency notifications and decisions to evacuate are judgment calls for college administrators that present their own problems, said Vincent Morris, executive director of the higher education practice at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Itasca, Ill.

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School officials, he said, can be caught between the opposing risks of overreacting or underreacting to a perceived threat: evacuating a campus unnecessarily in the case of a hoax, or failing to evacuate in a case where a bomb threat is real.

A decision can be made more complicated by the federal Clery Act (see related story), which requires a timely warning to the campus community, as soon as a school confirms an “immediate threat to the health or safety” of students and employees. While the requirement seems straightforward, it can leave room for second-guessing decisions after the fact, Mr. Morris said.

At UT-Austin, for instance, some students complained that the university waited 75 minutes to issue a warning after receiving the threat at 8:35 a.m. that bombs would go off on campus in 90 minutes, according to news reports.

UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said in a statement the school and police “responded quickly and appropriately” to the situation.

The specificity of a threat — a caller describing the number or placement of bombs, for example — makes officials' decisions to act easier, Mr. Morris said.

The recent series of threats, though, confirms that schools generally are more apt to evacuate in a perceived emergency than they might have been in the past, risk management experts say.

“You always want to err on the side of caution when there's a bomb threat on campus,” Ms. Hostovich said.

In cases when a threat turns out to be a hoax, meanwhile, colleges are unlikely to recover their response costs from insurers unless they maintain specialized coverage, experts say.

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Costs can include additional security to handle evacuations and search buildings, and expenses to shut down and later resume classroom, laboratory and other activities.

Without property damage or bodily injury from an incident, property and liability policies generally wouldn't cover these expenses, experts say.

Some property policies including coverage for expenses to preserve and protect property may come into play, Mr. Vohden said.

An increasing number of colleges also are buying kidnap and ransom coverage, mainly for faculty and students traveling abroad, Ms. Hostovich said. If structured properly, these policies can include coverage for costs of responding to extortionate threats, which might include bomb threats, she said.

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