Federal Bureau of Investigation

Jewish Centers' Bomb Threat Dilemma: To Evacuate or Not?

The debate comes as waves of threats target Jewish community centers across the country

Samantha Taylor's 3-year-old was evacuated with other pre-schoolers at her Jewish Community Center in Florida when the center received a bomb threat last month, and at first Taylor was impressed.

Within minutes the campus was evacuated and the children thought they were off on a nature walk, she said.

But as threats kept coming, she and other parents became more worried. 

"Our security director held meetings after every bomb threat where parents could voice concerns," she said. "And one of the concerns after especially the second time was that our evacuation plan was becoming routine. And that was shared by the security director. This was not something they hadn't thought of before."

Now the JCC's security is evaluating each threat to determine how best to respond, a plan devised with the assistance of the FBI and local law enforcement, she said. 

It is a tension Jewish organizations across the country are facing since more than hundred bomb threats have targeted community centers and day schools since the beginning of the year. The rash of phone calls has prompted evacuations across the country and in Canada, even as safety experts say automatic evacuations can inspire copycats and pose their own dangers.

The latest evacuation was ordered at the Jewish Children's Museum in Brooklyn Thursday in response to a threat. One day earlier, Jewish community centers in West Hartford, Connecticut, and Louisville, Kentucky, received bomb threats. On Tuesday, threats came in Florida, Illinois, New York and Wisconsin and included several offices of the Anti-Defamation League. A voluntary evacuation took place at the organization's national headquarters in New York City. 

"Bomb threats are about intimidation, harassment, disruption and the more you're able to accomplish by doing that, that just encourages additional bomb threats," said Paul Fennewald, an adviser to the Missouri School Boards Association.

Few actual bombings are preceded by threats, he and others say.

On Friday, a former journalist was arrested in connection with some of the threats. Juan Thompson, 31, who was fired from The Intercept last year after the publication said he made up quotes and sources, was allegedly harassing a former lover when he called in bomb threats against the Anti-Defamation League and seven other Jewish centers around the country, authorities said.

But Thompson is not believed to be responsible for most of the threats, according to authorities.

The JCC Association of North America did not comment on whether to evacuate or not but said in a statement released on Friday: "JCC Association of North America is gratified by the arrest made in connection with the large number of anti-Semitic threats that have targeted JCCs and other Jewish institutions over the past two months."

Fennewald said that an immediate evacuation was critical if someone saw a suspicious package or there was some other indication that a threat was real. But absent that evidence, he recommends more investigation — interviewing people, assessing a building's security — before evacuating.

"I know immediately parents are going to say, 'Oh my gosh there's a bomb in that school. If there's a threat I don't want my kids there.' But you've got to think that through," he said.

He and others cautioned that the places people evacuate to — a parking lot or a city street — could be more dangerous. A bomb could have been set there or armed attackers could be waiting.

"I might be able to get into an elementary school and place a small device in that school but it's a lot harder for me to get into that facility with a relatively large device," said Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a campus safety organization. "Whereas if you're evacuating through or to a parking lot or down a city street, I may be able to put a much larger device in a vehicle or in a culvert or in a trash bin."

Of the 642 bombings reported across the U.S. in 2014, 15 were in schools, according to the U.S. Bomb Data Center.

Jewish groups nationwide have been coordinating with law enforcement over how to best respond to the threats, which have been made by a mix of people and robo-calls and some of which law enforcement officials say could be coming from overseas. The Anti-Defamation League expanded its security training programs in response.

The FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division are investigating possible civil rights violations as a result of the threats, security advisers from the Department of Homeland Security are offering their expertise and the Federal Communication Commission is temporarily allowing the JCC to trace telephone calls from blocked phone numbers, USA Today reported.

Dorn said schools and other targets should have three options prepared beforehand — from relying on staff to notice anything out of place, then evacuating students to a place that has been checked for bombs or weapons, to checking a building while students and staff remain where they are, to moving everyone to a gymnasium or auditorium that has been checked first, then going through the rest of the building.

Several choices makes it harder for an attacker to predict a reaction, he said.

The JCC bomb threats have come in six waves in 33 states and two provinces in Canada. No bombs were discovered at any of the JCCs, which offer preschools and sports, arts and other programs across the country.

Nancy K. Kaufman, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, said the bomb threats as well the recent toppling of headstones in some Jewish cemeteries have "deeply shaken the Jewish community." 

"We are outraged by the recent bomb threats attempting to strike at the very core of our communities, where our children go to preschool and our parents lay to rest," she said.

A 2015 study of 800 shooting and bomb threats to schools found that too many were reacting first and then assessing the threat, said Ken Trump, the president of the National School Safety and Security Services, which directed the study. Thirty percent of the threats resulted in the evacuation of schools, 10 percent in the schools' closures. Many were done prematurely and unnecessarily, Trump said.

"While emotionally it is understandable why administrators and parents jump to evacuating students out of the school that received the threat, when administrators send children out of the school they risk exposing them to other threats outside of the school," the study said.

"In cases of threats with questionable credibility, the best place for students may be for them to remain in school under heightened supervision and security while the investigation moves forward," it said.

Jewish community centers and other Jewish groups have seen deadly violence in the past. A 14-year-old Eagle Scout and his grandfather were shot to death outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in 2014, by a Ku Klux Klan member who then gunned down a woman at a nearby retirement community. A man who identified himself as a Muslim-American angry at Israel forced his way into the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006, shooting six women, one fatally, And a white supremacist opened fire in the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California, in 1999, shooting five people, including three young boys.

"Unfortunately, threats like this are nothing new for the Jewish community," the national director of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in a statement in February. 

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