Top security experts are advising schools to review and practice their crisis plans and to communicate emergency procedures to parents and students in response to this month’s warning to the nation of an increased chance of terrorist attacks.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security raised its terror-threat alert on Feb. 7 from yellow to orange to warn the public of a “high risk” of attacks on U.S. targets here and abroad in the coming weeks. The highest state of alert is red.
“We encourage every school—regardless of whether the alert is yellow, orange, or red—to have a plan for all types of events that might occur, so when the government goes to [a higher state of alert], schools are prepared,” said William Modzeleski, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s safe-schools program.
For schools that have not developed or recently practiced emergency plans, doing so immediately would not be an overreaction, Mr. Modzeleski said last week.
“I think there does need to be a call to action for all schools,” he said, “because there are new perils like biological warfare that our government believes could happen.”
Drawing on what they said were disturbing reports from intelligence sources, homeland-security officials cited biological, radiological, and chemical attacks as the likeliest forms of terrorism, and Washington and New York City as the most likely domestic targets.
The possibility of terrorism was a central preoccupation for some schools last week, particularly those located in and around the nation’s capital. People across the Washington region flocked to hardware and grocery stores in response to front-page news stories advising residents to stock up on food and water, batteries, and plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal off windows and doors.
The question for schools, in Washington and elsewhere in the country, was whether to take similar precautions.
“We may not have an incident ever, but the constant threat of one is creating stress all over the school system,” said Brian Porter, the spokesman for the 139,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district, located just outside the capital.
The Homeland Security Department offers general recommendations for the public on its Web site, but nothing specific to schools. Nor was any new guidance offered as of late last week by the Education Department, the federal government’s most likely information clearinghouse for schools.
Some experts believe the lack of focus on schools is a serious hole in the government’s homeland-security shield. Shortly after the upgraded terrorism alert was issued on Feb. 7, the 10,000-member National Association of School Resource Officers urged the Bush administration and Congress to craft an “Education Homeland Security Act.”
The group, based in Anthony, Fla., said most of its members believe their schools are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Recent cuts to federal and state school-safety programs, the association argued, will lead many districts to curb their security efforts at a time when greater vigilance is needed.
Sometime this spring, the Education Department’s safe-schools division is expected to outline steps schools should take in the event of a biochemical attack. Until then, the department is pointing to the Fairfax County, Va., district as a model of preparedness.
The 161,000-student district, located in a suburb of Washington, is ready at a moment’s notice to mobilize an operation capable of vaccinating 1 million people for smallpox, said Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech. And the school system’s procedures for responding to chemical attacks, called “shelter-in-place,” have attracted favorable attention from the news media and interest from districts across the country.
In the event of a nearby chemical attack during the school day, Fairfax County students would be held in locked-down schools. Ventilation systems would be shut down, and doors and windows sealed. Teachers would help any contaminated students undress and shower.
“Our security plans have been significantly altered from what they were,” Mr. Domenech said. “We’re taking into account all the potential contingencies.”
While not a new idea in emergency planning—school districts in Los Angeles and Clark County, Nev., have practiced shelter-in-place for at least two decades—such tactics were rediscovered in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They are recommended by such experts as Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland company that works with schools in 35 states.
Montgomery County schools also will resort to shelter-in-place procedures during events that prevent the safe release of students to their parents.
“Parents should know that access to schools during an incident might be restricted for a variety of reasons beyond our control,” Superintendent Jerry D. Weast wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to parents, students, and staff members in the Maryland district. “Student and staff safety is our first priority. All procedures are designed for their protection.”
Mr. Domenech received a number of phone calls last week from parents unhappy with the Fairfax district’s plans, but he said he had no intention of backing down. “It makes sense,” he argued. “I try to tell parents that if we’re refusing to allow students out of the building, it’s because the air is too poisonous to breathe, so parents won’t be out there to pick them up anyway.”
In the city of Washington—where living within a subway ride or walking distance of a school is more likely than in its suburbs—parents “know that at any time, they are allowed to come to the schools and pick up their children,” said Louis Erste, the chief operating officer for the 68,000-student District of Columbia system.
Because Washington has been cited by federal officials as the likeliest target for future terrorist attacks, the city’s public school officials reacted swiftly to the heightened alert.
With little notice last week, schools were asked to conduct emergency-evacuation drills, assemble crisis teams, and review their evacuation plans, “so that students and staff are familiar with the routine,” Mr. Erste said.
Administrators identified where students and employees should converge in case they were confined to school buildings, and inventoried their supplies of food and water.
But beyond the Washington area, the government’s terrorism warning has met with a more muted response. Officials with many of the nation’s largest districts described long-standing school-safety plans last week and said they saw little need to step up their efforts.
In New York City, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s office last week had taken no special steps to communicate with schools or the public about the federal government’s terrorism warning.
With 1.1 million students, 150,000 employees, and 1,200 buildings, New York’s school system is the nation’s largest, and many of its students and staff members experienced the devastation of the 2001 terrorist strike on the World Trade Center close up. Perhaps for that reason, district officials saw no reason to do anything differently in response to the alert.
“Nothing has changed,” said Kevin Ortiz, a district spokesman. “We don’t have specific crisis plans for airplane crashes, terrorism attacks, or floods. Our schools’ safety plans are specific to each school, not to a particular emergency.”
Some district officials elsewhere argued that before they take steps that could potentially disrupt schools and compound the fears of children and parents, they need more than a general notice from the federal government that something may happen, somewhere, at some point in time.
“Unless they give us a specific threat to one of our buildings, we can’t constantly disrupt our facilities,” said William G. Waterkamp, the safety and security administrator for the 45,000-student St. Paul, Minn., district.
“Kids need a safe, stable atmosphere in which to learn, and that is what we give them,” Mr. Waterkamp said. “I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when people were building bomb shelters. That was pretty scary stuff for a kid.
“I don’t think we are going to put our children in St. Paul through that.”