Column: Bomb hoax shows now is the time to review emergency situations

picture of a hacker on a computer
picture of a hacker on a computer

Bomb threats were sent to several Sheffield schools on Monday morning, in what turned out to be a worrying few hours for staff across the city.

The threatening messages were part of a co-ordinated email attack that put over 400 headteachers across the country in the difficult position of making a split-second, potentially life and death decision.

Just like hearing the fire alarm, getting a bomb hoax via email can lead to complacency.

Messages warned that school grounds would be bombed unless money was handed over to an online account. There is no part of a teacher training course that can properly prepare heads for that situation.

When we send our children to school in this city, we expect them to be safe and sound and so something like this – albeit a false alarm – can raise anxiety about how secure schools are and what emergency policies are in place.

No matter how much emphasis is put on safeguarding and regardless of how high the prison-style fences around our schools are, there is no way to ensure that our junior schools, secondary schools and colleges are completely safe. And that’s why the actions of senior staff on Monday morning need praising, because the threat was dealt with calmly and sensibly across the city.

In what was a difficult scenario, school life continued as normal and in many cases the children had no idea that the email had been received.

I was in one of the buildings on Monday that was affected by the bomb hoax and am thankful for the responsible way the leadership team dealt with the threat. Police were contacted immediately and because of the scale of the hoax it was known other schools up and down the country had received the message as well.

Fortunately, it was quickly established that there was no terrorist link to the bomb hoax email, with national media reporting that it may have come from a disgruntled Minecraft player.

Some schools decided not to evacuate and were soon informed this was the right decision, while others marched their children straight out of the school as soon as they read the message.

The incident raises a few questions about how schools should react in the event of these malevolent incidents.

Policies for dealing with bomb threats – and a wide range of other emergency situations – should already be in place. Teachers and governors should be aware of the different type of threats that can be issued.

There’s a balancing act between ensuring safety in schools and making sure evacuations aren’t a regular occurrence. For example, there’s a secondary school in South Yorkshire that has had serious issues with its fire alarm system. It basically goes off at the drop of a hat.

It was going off so many times and causing so many fire drills that the new policy became a dangerous one – if you hear the alarm, wait a minute and see if it gets turned off. It let to ridiculous situations when teachers would pause lessons, go out onto the corridor and liaise with other teachers to see if they needed to evacuate. In the case of a real-life fire, of course, those wasted seconds could cost lives.

Just like hearing the fire alarm, getting a bomb hoax via email can lead to complacency. This was not the first time a school has received a bomb threat, of course.

In a country like ours, where we are fortunate enough to presume that a day at school will be as safe as the previous one, it’s very easy to assume that the fire alarm going off is a glitch, that the bomb threat email is a hoax.

The problem with having this as a default position is the long list of “what ifs” it creates. What if it is a real fire? What if there is a bomb in the school? What if the decision not to evacuate was wrong?

A high-profile incident like this week’s presents us with an opportunity to start a conversation about extreme emergency situations in schools. Police and headteachers should look over their policies and address the difficult balance about when to evacuate and when to dismiss threat as a hoax. If unsure, however, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.