Anatomy of a Bomb Threat

The Lockdown

On Friday, Mar. 6, at 10:20 am Marshall Middle School (MMS) was placed on lockdown due to a bomb threat. Within the hour, three more San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) sites were also locked down: Lincoln HS, Lewis Middle School, and Magnolia Science Academy.

Despite the challenge of handling simultaneous lockdowns at four schools, all sites were searched and no devices were discovered. Most importantly, no students or staff were hurt. As of press time, no arrests had been made in the incident.

The Follow-Up

While School Police handled the situations well, concerns regarding district policies and procedures were brought to the attention of the SRCA Newsletter. Hoping to get a more complete picture, on Apr. 7 Newsletter staff filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for emails regarding the bomb threat.

The district responded in the legal time limit. However, due to more than 1,500 pages of emails that SDUSD attorneys had to screen for sensitive or confidential information, the Newsletter did not receive the documents until May 12.

Ultimately, we reviewed 500 pages of emails, and here are the highlights:

  • The bomb threat email was received on Thursday, Mar. 5, at 9:31 pm.
  • According to district staff, the email was sent to the “generic SDUSD Information account,” which is “a general email account for general questions and information. It is monitored by the Communications Office but not on a 24-hour basis.”
  • The exact content of the email, including capitalization and punctuation, is:

“hello. We have planted bombs on 4 of your schools.

Of course, Lewis middle school

Lincoln high school

Magnolia science academy

And Marshall middle school.

These bombs will go off tomorrow. This will be a game of minesweeper. Let’s see how long you f—–s (offensive language redacted by the Newsletter) can survive. They will either go off around 8 or 12 or 2 tomorrow. the bombs are small bombs which can not be sniffed by dogs.

Day 0/5

We will turn all of ourselves if you can find all the bomb by Monday.

Good luck. I would let all the parents know so no kids won’t be hurt.

PS: I may be a student or a staff administrator, at one of these schools or another school. Only thing is I am working or going to SDUSD”

  • The email was forwarded from the Communications Office to School Police at 8:37 am on Friday, Mar. 6.
  • The schools were locked down at:
  • Marshal MS—10:20 am
  • Lincoln HS—11:01 am
  • Lewis MS—11:05 am
  • Magnolia—11:14 am
  • The lockdown at Marshall was lifted at 12:52 pm.

The response was led by SDUSD School Police, with San Diego Police assisting. Other law enforcement agencies also responded to a mutual aid call.

The Second Search

A second search of the schools was conducted in the early morning hours of Monday, Mar. 9. On Sunday night MMS parents were told a second search would be conducted on Monday morning via an email from the school. The email said in part: “They [police] also want to provide us every assurance that our schools continue to be safe and secure, and will be conducting a second precautionary sweep tomorrow before school starts.”

Our review of the emails provided by the district revealed that a second email indicating a potential threat was sent to the district on Friday night. That particular email was not provided in the FOIA documents. However, an email exchange between School Police and SDPD’s Northeastern Division (which covers Scripps Ranch) on Sunday, Mar. 8, states:

“…After the searches were complete (Note: referring to the Friday lockdown), School PD received another email insinuating that searching officers were unsuccessful in their search, and that explosive device(s) still existed at the schools. In an effort to ensure the safety of the students and staff at these schools, School PD with SDPD assistance will conduct another cursory search of the school campuses prior to school starting on Monday, March 9th, between the hours of 0600-0700 hours.”

Questions and Answers

The emails raised more questions, and the SRCA Newsletter took those questions to the district. We thank Ursula Kroemer, the district’s chief public information officer, for her timely responses and efforts to keep Scripps Ranch informed.

Question: The initial threat was sent to an email account that is only sporadically monitored during business hours. The email was not discovered until after the first “threat window” (8 am) had passed. Has protocol changed in light of this incident? If so, who is monitoring it?

District response: “We do continue to monitor this account regularly but do not do so 24/7. We have, however, increased our monitoring of email (using filtering tools) to pick up significant key words, names or addresses. That began immediately after the threat incident.”

Question: The first email containing the bomb threat was forwarded to School Police on Monday, Mar. 6, at 8:37 am. What caused the delay in locking down the schools after police received the email? Why weren’t all the schools locked down at the same time?

District response: “Once School Police was notified of the first threat…they immediately mobilized a response team which included resources from other public safety agencies in addition to our own officers. A tactical plan was devised quickly and efficiently, and teams deployed to each of the four schools and included no less than nine officers per school from the combined agencies. Principals were notified at approximately the same time.

“The lockdowns were…implemented by each school based on their individual school situation that day, took into consideration the criteria outlined in their respective school site safety plans, and the availability of first responders and other safety resources to the campuses.”

Question: Why weren’t parents told about the second email that implied “explosive device(s)” were still on campus, which led to the second sweep?

District response: The second email was received on Friday night after hours and was retrieved Saturday morning, when School Police were notified. The district told us: “All four schools had been thoroughly swept Friday and all classrooms secured. Wanting to err on the side of caution, we mobilized a similar response team to sweep the campuses early Monday morning and deem campuses clear and safe before students arrived.

“Technically, the second email was not constituted to be a second individual ‘threat’ by law enforcement for a variety of reasons we can’t go into in order to protect the integrity of the investigation and hopeful prosecution. We are treating the second email as part of the same incident, same case. We felt a precautionary sweep would help reassure parents we were being watchful and protective, even though the second email offered no specifics upon which to act.”

Question: Why weren’t the children immediately evacuated from the buildings if there was the potential of bombs inside?

Answer: School Police addressed that question at a Scripps Ranch Schools Committee meeting attended by all Scripps Ranch principals, parent representatives, community leaders from various organizations, and the district’s area superintendent. Officers said they didn’t have any idea where a potential explosive could be, so it didn’t make sense to move people to an area they had not yet secured.

In addition, they had to consider that the bomb threat could have been a ruse to commit another crime. Therefore, the safest place for the children and staff was in the classrooms, while police checked the schools’ perimeters and cleared the evacuation areas prior to allowing anyone to leave the classrooms.

Question: Why weren’t parents told about the lockdown and what was happening on campus in a more timely manner?

Answer: The emails show that the district communication’s department learned some lessons on how to manage information when there are concurrent lockdowns. The district has never had four at the same time prior to this incident.

Of course, the safety of the children and staff was the number one priority. In addition, the district did not want to disseminate information until it was certain of its accuracy. The goal is always to inform families as soon as possible.

During the March lockdown, notifications were sent to families through emails. If you did not receive the updates, be sure that you are subscribed to the school’s notification system. You could call or email the school to opt-in.

Final Notes

The district said there have been new developments in the case, but they could not share them with us at this time. The investigation continues.

MMS administration told us after the lockdown it was pleased with how the school’s Safety Plan worked. Staff debriefed and suggested ways to fine-tune the response to such situations.

Gloria Tran, SRCA Newsletter Editor