9/11: How Education Week Covered the Story When Terror Touched Schools

By Mark Walsh — September 10, 2016 6 min read
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The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, dominated U.S. news coverage for months, not just for general news organizations but for specialized outlets such as Education Week, which found many stories and angles to pursue.

“Within minutes of the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States, the reverberations rippled through the nation’s classrooms,” Karla Scoon Reid and Catherine Gewertz wrote in Education Week‘s first issue just days after the jet hijackings that led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York City; Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa., where one jet was flown into the ground.

“Parents raced to schools to hold their children close,” the story continued. “Administrators closest to the attack sites took varying paths to ensure their students’ security and sanity. But the assaults also put new demands for crisis management on other American school systems.”

Kevin Bushweller, then, as now, an Education Week editor, was on a reporting trip to a high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when the two hijacked airliners crashed into the twin towers, leading to their collapse.

“The atmosphere in the school was awash in worry,” Bushweller wrote of his visit to La Guardia High School of Art and Music and Performing Arts. “Students leaned against walls in the hallways and frantically tapped numbers into their cellphones. But the calls did not go through at first. Some students had tears streaming down their cheeks. Others covered their faces with their hands or simply looked bewildered.”

There are many images seared into memory from Sept. 11, including then-President George W. Bush’s visit to an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., as the terror unfolded.

Erik W. Robelen wrote in Education Week that the week was supposed to be one focused on the education policy of the Bush administration. The president had visited a school in Jacksonville, Fla., the day before under the theme of “Putting Reading First.”

And at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota the day of the attacks, Bush famously continued to read to students from a children’s book, My Pet Goat, for an uncomfortably long time even as his aides alerted him about the second plane that hit the World Trade Center, making it clear that, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered into the president’s ear, “America is under attack.”

Sandra Kay Daniels, the teacher whose classroom the president was visiting, later told Robelen that she and her students did not immediately know what the president was hearing from his aide.

“I knew something was on his mind because of the expression on his face,” Daniels said.

Curriculum and Media Help Students Comprehend

While schools across the country were forced to deal with the aftermath of the terror attacks, for some the impact was all-too direct.

Three students and three teachers from a Washington, D.C., elementary school, on their way to an ecology conference, perished as passengers of the hijacked plane that the terrorists flew into the Pentagon, Alan Richard reported.

At Xavier High School in lower Manhattan, just steps from the World Trade Center, students, teachers, and staff members lost 29 relatives in the attack, Gewertz reported. In some suburban New York City schools, many students lost parents.

But even far from the sites of the attacks, the terror touched schools.

“Textbooks, carefully planned activities, and even years of teaching experience seemed inadequate tools for dealing with events of such immediacy and magnitude,” David J. Hoff and Kathleen Kennedy Manzo reported in a story about the impact of the events on instruction. “The attacks in New York and just outside Washington—besides being formative events for today’s young people as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Watergate investigation were for older Americans—could bring lasting consequences that schools’ curricula will reflect.”

Children’s media such as Scholastic News, Time for Kids, and Channel One worked in the weeks after the attacks to help students understand the issues and help teachers facilitate discussions, Michelle Galley reported. Meanwhile, student newspapers made room for stories reflecting angles of the terror story, such as the paper at a high school in Wauwatosa, Wis., which published a former student’s firsthand account of the World Trade Center attacks, Rhea Borja wrote.

Even Education Week‘s pursuit of multiple angles in the weeks after the attacks reflected the depth and all-consuming nature of the story. The Wall Street Journal, in fact, did a story about how trade journals and specialized publications such as Farm Journal, Cheese Market News, and Pit & Quarry magazine were finding their own angles on the story.

Patriotism and Anthrax

One side effect of the terror attacks was a resurgence of patriotism in the schools, as Manzo reported. The attacks “seem to have created an instant change in many places in the attitude toward civics education and the role of schools in cultivating patriotism, many observers say,” according to her story. “What was once a mainstay of public education, but had lost significance and even become controversial because it was viewed as being at odds with a multicultural and inclusive message, came back in a stream of red, white, and blue this month.”

In an Education Week article a couple of weeks later, Mark Walsh (your Education and the Media blogger) reported that students were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with renewed vigor, and that schools were restoring the pledge in places where the practice had fallen by the wayside. Some civil libertarians and community members, though, gingerly raised questions about whether public schools should promote slogans such as “God Bless America.”

Just as a mild degree of normalcy had returned to the nation, the October 2001 anthrax mailings to various media and government targets raised fresh anxieties and caused more problems for schools, as well as for the congressional education committees that were working on a measure to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But the committees would resume their work and, in the end, the terror attacks would help prompt a spirit of bipartisanship on the major education bill.

“A month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush invited four senior lawmakers to the White House—two Republicans and two Democrats,” Robelen would report in Education Week in 2004, “Although national security surely was the most pressing issue on the president’s mind, this talk in the Oval Office wasn’t about protecting the homeland or fighting terrorists overseas. It was about education.”

“And shortly before Christmas 2001, less than a year after the president came to office, Congress delivered,” Robelen wrote in reference to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. “Overwhelming majorities in both chambers backed what is arguably the most far-reaching federal education law in U.S. history.”

While the NCLB law has now been superseded by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the effects of Sept. 11 on our nation’s schools have not completely receded, even after 15 years.

Research assistance provided by Assistant Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.