Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Bomb Threat Copycats

The Daily Pennsylvanian has published an article on September 5, 2007, written by Katie Karas on the wave of bomb threats that are sweeping across the United States. Is copycatting behind what is occurring?

The bomb threats have been received for three months, but in a concentrated fashion between August 24th and 27th, and in the days afterward. Media this week are reporting that 13 colleges and universities have been the targets of the threats. I've tracked more than 13, including Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Middle Tennessee State University, Princeton University, Cornell University, University of Iowa, University of New Hampshire, University of Alaska at Anchorage, Oregon State University, University of Akron, Clemson University, Western Illinois University, William & Mary College, Clarkson University, and Swarthmore College. There are probably several others.

This comes during a time when threats and extortion attempts against U.S. stores, banks, and businesses continue with more bomb threats being called in nearly every day, according to U.S. officials and the FBI. By last count yesterday, at least 24 threats have been received by businesses in more than 17 states.

The university bomb threat itself doesn’t mention any college by name, and lists the sender of the e-mail as George, an Italian Web site. No bomb has been found in any situation, and the threat has been considered a hoax in each case.

I mentioned to Karas that in the cyclic nature of school shootings, there are often waves of bomb threats occurring afterward. For example, during the month after Columbine, over 400 false bomb threats were reported, mostly in high schools, across the United States. If this current wave is any indication of what is going to present itself in the wake of the Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia) shootings of April 16, 2007, we all may have to be prepared for a busy fall and spring on the campuses of the nation.

The following is the text of the Karas' article:

Over a dozen American universities received bomb threats within the past ten days, though no explosives were found at any of the threatened sites.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations is still examining the apparent hoaxes.

"We're working with the college and university police and the local police to investigate these matters," FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said. "Due to today's world, none of these threats can be taken lightly."

Schools have been especially on edge since last April's shootings at Virginia Tech, and many universities - including Penn - have instituted emergency alert systems in the event of a scare.

The Massachusetts Instiute of Technology and Princeton, Cornell and Carnegie Mellon universities were among the campuses targeted.

Kolko declined to comment on whether the FBI thought the threats could be related.

It is not unusual for so many threats to be received in such a short period of time, said Loren Coleman, the author of The Copycat Effect.

"I think what we generally find is there are waves of these situations where copycats do occur, and they come in clusters," Coleman said.

Vice President of Public Safety Maureen Rush said Penn rarely receives bomb threats.

The last one occurred last fall, when certain buildings of the Quadrangle were evacuated while police specialists responded to a bomb threat in the SEPTA line that runs underneath the area.

In the case of a threat, Rush said, building administrators and the police would be notified by PennComm, and police would then determine the level of threat and decide the appropriate course of action.

"We always err on the side of caution," Rush said, "but we try not to be trigger happy."

Police and security forces responded to the recent threats by sweeping certain buildings and sometimes evacuating them, though many of the threats did not specify which buildings were being targeted.

At M.I.T., for instance, the threat received did not mention any specific location on campus.

Officials at Princeton said the number of threats actually allayed their fears.

"After learning that there were other universities [that received threats, it] actually reinforced in our minds that it was not a credible threat," Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said.

Mario Scalora, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an expert on threat assessment, agrees that in many cases the threats are not worthy of a full-fledged response.

"If someone really wants to hurt you, they're not going to tell you in advance," he noted. "You take them all seriously because the threat still could materialize, but you have to take a bigger-picture look at things."

But with the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks approaching, Scalora suspects that the flow of hoaxes will not abate anytime soon.

Source: "Several universities receive bomb threats: Princeton, Cornell, others threatened, but safety officials find no explosives," by Katie Karas, The Daily Pennsylvanian, September 5, 2007.