The threat of terrorism: what schools must consider

A recent security threat at Bury College has underlined the message that education establishments across the UK must continue to be on alert about the threat of terrorism.

As reported by the Manchester Evening News, the incident at the Great Manchester college saw the facility being put in lockdown as a precaution before an evacuation took place. Hundreds of staff and students were caught up in the event.A statement released by Bury College following the security threat acknowledged: “Staff at Bury College reacted swiftly today in response to a potential threat. Working closely with exceptional support from the police, the college quickly instigated its well-rehearsed lockdown procedures. A safe evacuation of the college was taken as a precautionary measure.”

This guide details what members of staff at schools must consider in the result of encountering a similar security threat:

How to recognise the terrorism threat

There are a number of procedures in place by the National Counter Terrorism Security Office for recognising a terrorist threat, as detailed by this GOV.UK publication. The following points are especially important for schools:

Identifying threat levels

The threat level is a measure of the likelihood of a terrorist attack taking place in the UK and so should be constantly monitored by those concerned about security at schools. Find the country’s most up-to-date threat level on the MI5 website.

Guidance when encountering suspicious items

In the instance that you come across a suspicious item, this is the protocol that you should follow as a member of staff:

  1. Use the following HOT protocol to confirm if the item exhibits suspicious characteristics
  • Is the item HIDDEN?
  • Is the item OBVIOUSLY suspicious? (Be aware of any batteries, circuit boards, liquids, putty-like substances or wires that are visible.)
  • Is the item TYPICAL of what you would expect to find at the location where it’s been found?
  1. If the HOT protocol has made you more suspicious, the next step is to clear the immediate area. Take these actions to do so:
  • Do not touch the suspicious item.
  • Move people at least 100m away from the suspicious item, starting from the centre and moving out, so that they are at a safe distance.
  • Ensure both yourself and others are kept out of the line of sight of the suspicious item.
  • Avoid positioning yourself or others near glass — this includes skylights and windows.
  • Set up a cordon around the area.
  1. Call 999 to alert emergency services of the suspicious item, as well as inform any relevant member of staff at your establishment. However, avoid using radios within 15 metres of the suspicious item.
  2. Monitor access to the area that’s been cordoned off around the suspicious items, continuing to do so until it has been deemed safe.
  3. Ask eyewitnesses to stay at the scene so that they can communicate to the police about what they’ve seen.

Guidance when encountering suspicious deliveries or mail

All educational establishments will receive a large amount of mail and other deliveries on a daily basis. Here’s a list of pointers so that you can quickly identify if a delivered item should raise suspicions:

  • Has the item been delivered unexpectedly? (Such an item been delivered by hand is also a cause for concern)
  • Has the item been delivered in a padded envelope, a Jiffy Bag or another form of bulky package?
  • Is there an additional inner envelope or other contents that is difficult to remove?
  • Has the labelling or sealing been applied so excessively that it encourages opening at a particular end or in a specific way?
  • Is the item oddly shaped or lopsided?
  • Is the envelop flap stuck down completely? (There are slight gaps at the edges of normally gummed envelope flaps)
  • Has the item been marked with phrases such as “To be opened only by…”, “Personal” or “Confidential”?
  • Has the item been addressed to an organisation or a title as opposed to a specific individual?
  • Is the origin of the item unexpected or unusual? (Look at the postmark and the return address where this matter is concerned)
  • Is there no postmark?
  • Is there no return address on the item?
  • Is the return address unable to be verified?
  • Has the address been printed poorly, inaccurately, unevenly or in an unusual manner?
  • Is the writing unfamiliar?
  • Is the style of writing unusual?
  • Are there more stamps on the item than is required for its size and/or weight?
  • Are there any greasy or oily stains which emanate from the item?
  • Are there any odours which emanate from the item?

If your suspicions have been raised further after working through the above checklist, work through this emergency response plan:

  1. Do not engage in unnecessary handling and x-raying of the suspicious delivered item — The item should be put down on a cleared flat surface and kept separate from other items so that it can be identified easily. No attempts should be made to move the item, even for the purpose of x-raying it.
  2. Clear the area — The immediate area where the suspicious item is should be cleared immediately, which includes all adjacent rooms including spaces both above and below the room where the suspicious item can be found. Once cleared, ensure no one is able to approach the area until it is safe to do so and make sure that no mobile phones or two-way radios are used within 15 metres of the suspicious item.
  3. Inform the police — During this initial conversation, let the police know if the suspicious item has been opened. Any informants and witnesses to the suspicious item should remain in contact so that they can brief the police once they begin carrying out their investigations.

Knowing the difference between external and internal evacuations

It is important to know the difference between external and internal evacuations so that the best efforts can be made to move individuals to a safe location.

External evacuations will be used when is has been deemed appropriate to leave the venue to ensure safety. Those familiar with a school’s evacuation points and assembly points should be appointed as marshals to assist with this procedure, with at least two assembly points set up in opposing directions and at a minimum of 500 metres away from scene of the suspicious activity.

Internal evacuations — sometimes referred to as either inwards evacuations or invacuations — will be used on occasions when it has been deemed safer to remain inside the school rather than leaving it. For example, it may put people in greater danger if an evacuation procedure inadvertently takes individuals past the suspicious item.

For an internal evacuation, ensure that people are kept away from any external windows and walls and aim to move all parties to an internal safe area that is found within the same building.

Improving security

Look to improve security at a school with the following techniques and reduce the likelihood of a threat developing:

  • Set up visitors’ access control systems around all entrances to a school, so that every individual is checked and identified before they are allowed into the establishment.
  • Clearly define a school’s boundaries, such as by placing fencing around the grounds or having clear signs that indicates when an individual is about to trespass.
  • Have one main entrance to the school, which should be visible from the reception area and be the only way for individuals to access the establishment during hours of study. Separate entrances are fine to have around a school, but only open these when pupils are arriving or leaving the building.
  • Secure all doors and windows around a school. For this, fit alarms to exit doors so that people can be warned of unauthorised use, as well as apply locks to windows and have strict control about who can gain access to keys for opening them.
  • Set up CCTV systems so that surveillance can still be granted in sections of a school which aren’t often monitored by staff, as well as so that the entire establishment can be monitored at times when it is sitting empty.


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