How Mass Notification Assisted Ohio District During Bomb Threat

One Call Now mass notification technology allowed Ohio-based Anna Local Schools to record messages to send to parents when the district was faced with a bomb threat.

In a time of crisis, it is essential that K-12 school districts have the ability to communicate quickly and effectively, not only among staff and administrators, but also with parents and the community at large. When the Anna Local Schools found themselves faced with a bomb threat, having a mass messaging system was key to calming fears and reigning in help from the student body to try to catch the offender.

“I can’t imagine going through that week without being able to use our automated dialer,” says Andy Bixler, superintendent of Anna Local Schools in Anna, Ohio.

The district uses the mass messaging solution One Call Now, which provides the ability for schools to send pre-recorded voice messages or text messages to specific contact lists or groups of people. At least one phone number for each family is registered and parents have the ability to log onto One Call now via the school website and add, edit or delete contact information. This messaging system was used throughout the week, one September, after a note alleging a bomb threat on a specific date was found in a school bathroom. Bixler notified parents of the events and kept the school community up-to-date on the ongoing police investigation through automated voice calls.

Communications Protocol

The bomb threat was written in a note found in the bathroom at the high school. The principal notified Bixler, who asked if it was possible to identify the offender in a matter of minutes. Students at the Anna Local Schools sign out when they leave the classroom to go to the bathroom. The high school principal checked the sign out logs and determined which students may have signed out of a study period nearby.

“By the location of the bathroom, we had determined that if this happened in the last hour, it had to have happened from one of three classrooms,” says Bixler.

Unfortunately, an early lead turned out to be false and law enforcement was called in at the end of the school day. The note did not indicate an immediate threat, but rather listed a date one week in the future so the school had time to formulate a response plan, including school communications.

“In terms of communication, the established protocol would be that the communication comes from me. From my office,” says Bixler.

To make an automated call, Bixler simply picks up the phone and dials a 1-800 number. He then enters his unique user ID or PIN number. The messaging system allows the district to have multiple users so the volleyball coach, for example, has her own ID that can be used to send messages to just her team if practice is canceled or a game delayed. Once the PIN is entered, the system allows Bixler to record his message.

“In a situation like this, I’ve written it out. It gives me the chance to listen to the message. If I don’t like it, I can re-record it. That often occurs,” says Bixler. “I want to sound confident not stutter and stumble. Then I get a chance to review it and I’m given options in sending.”

Bixler can send the recorded voice message to the entire district or to a smaller group or sub category. He can also choose to send it immediately or queue it to be sent at a specific time. The Anna Local schools typically send voice communications around 6pm to ensure parents are home from work to receive the call.

“Each time I sent a message, I asked for assistance and alluded to the fact that we wanted to catch the person responsible for the note. Beyond trying to assure our parents about providing a safe school day, I always referenced the ongoing investigation,” says Bixler.

Calming Fears

During that weeklong timeframe, a second note was found late in the afternoon one day. It was uncovered by a sixth grade student, the youngest group in the building.

“Unfortunately, that night many of the kids went home and there were lots of rumors. There were concerned parents and I got a lot of contacts by email and by phone between 4:00pm when the kids got home and 6:30pm that night when the call went out,” says Bixler.

However, once the One Call Now message went out. Bixler rarely received a phone call or email from a parent.

“I feel like being able to have that communication helped ease uncertainty every single time because I never got contacted after that,” says Bixler.

There is certainly something reassuring about hearing directly from the district superintendent. Parents were understandably concerned about the safety of their children, but they received communication directly from the top and could be confident the district was doing everything it could with the help of local law enforcement.

The added benefit of communicating with parents was that many students came forward with information. Bixler says they didn’t receive much “hard information,” but he was surprised by the number of middle and high school student who were willing to share whatever information they had or had heard.

“I attribute that to being able to send that message to their parents. I don’t think in a normal situation middle school and high school aged students want to rat out what they heard or what people were talking about,” says Bixler. He suspects it was the students’ parents who persuaded them to come forward and try to help.

Putting Security Measure in Place

To ensure student and staff safety, the canine unit from the State Fire Marshall’s office searched all school grounds and buses for explosive materials or devices. The schools were swept several times throughout the week and came up clean every time. K-12 students were also instructed not to bring backpacks to school and that duffel bags, lunch boxes and purses would be searched upon entering school buildings. The district also limited travel during the school day.

Some of those security measures remained in place even after the day of the threat had passed. The homecoming dance was the day after and school officials decided to conduct searches upon entering the dance as well.

“We didn’t announce every one of our safety precautions, but we did announce the searches,” says Bixler. “We announced the searches so that people would be aware that this was going to go on and if you’re a kindergarten or first grade parent you knew this was going to happen. If you were still going to be crazy enough to try to bring something to school when this was going on, you were aware this was going to happen.”

Once the second note was found, police were able to catch the student responsible. No threat ever came to fruition.

“We were able to determine that it was not a real threat and that it was meant to create panic not to actually come through and set off an explosive device or anything like that,” says Bixler.

Best Practices

Thinking back on the situation, Bixler would recommend using some kind of messaging system rather than relying solely on social media or the school website to communicate with parents, staff and students.

“Some schools might use a Facebook or something like that, but the difference is that you’re in control of who is hearing your message with One Call Now,” says Bixler. In this particular situation, I can tell you one of the things that I’m most comfortable with was knowing that I was in control of what I was saying and what people were hearing.”


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