American Schools Overseas Redouble Security Efforts
For teachers and administrators at schools serving Americans overseas, the outbreak of war last week brought a redoubling of efforts to secure the safety of their students.
Even in countries that are far removed from the Persian Gulf conflict, officials at U.S. Department of Defense schools and private international schools worried that any installation identified as American could become the target of a terrorist act.
Others expressed concern that American high-school students traveling abroad could also see a heightened risk of terrorism.
American educators and students in Saudi Arabia and Israel, meanwhile, faced being within range of a direct Iraqi attack--a danger that was underscored late last week by the Iraqi missile attacks on Tel Aviv, Haifa, and other areas.
The Walworth Barbour American International School near Tel Aviv had closed beginning Jan. 15, the day of the United Nations deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait, as did Israeli schools.
Enrollment at the American school, which had increased to 480 this past fall, declined considerably after Christmas, the school's superintendent, Forrest A. Broman, said in a telephone interview just hours before the start of the war.
Daryle Russell, superintendent of the Saudi Arabian International School in Riyadh, gave an indication of the vigilance of American school officials in the region in an interview the day after the first U.S. air attack on Iraq on Jan. 16.
"Tonight, we are going to get together and watch the skies," he said.
Mr. Russell said he had received a phone call early that morning from his son in Dhahran, where U.S. airplanes were taking off on their way to strike Iraq.
"He said, 'Planes are at the end of the runway and it looks like something is about to happen,"' said Mr. Russell, whose son teaches at the Dhahran Academy there, another school serving dependents of diplomats and international businessmen stationed overseas, including many Americans.
Despite the initiation of war and the exodus of many families from the region, Mr. Russell said his school in the Saudi Arabian capital would probably remain open in the days and weeks ahead.
Total enrollment at the school was about 1,500 before Christmas, but attendance had declined to 640 students one day last week.
"Many parents are keeping their children at home," Mr. Russell said. "Our decision is to keep school in session regardless of the attendance that we have, as long as we can secure their safety."
The only Department of Defense Dependents' Schools in or near the Middle East were closed last week even before U.S. and allied forces began their attack on Iraq. They were the DOD schools on Bahrain, a tiny emirate off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, and at Incerlik Air Base in Turkey, a joint U.S.-Turkish installation.
But the Defense Department also stepped up security for its approximately 200 schools throughout Europe.
"The European-theater offices have notified schools in the last two weeks of the need to increase the security awareness of students and parents," said William Hyder, chief of the transportation, safety, and security branch of the Defense Department schools.
"Military-community commanders are responsible for upgrading the physical security of the buildings and the surrounding area," he added. "Many of our schools are located in housing areas, which are normally open to the public. At times like these, guards are posted."
Melba Brown, an assistant principal at Nuernberg Elementary School in Germany said last week that school buses there, which are commercially operated, are no long permitted to pick up students in the areas where they live. The buses wait for students outside the housing area, she said, then drive in a caravan sandwiched between jeeps and military police from nearby Monteith Army Base.
Teachers and parents visiting the school, which is on base, must present three identifications and have their cars searched.
Even so, Ms. Brown said, only 300 of the 1,100 children enrolled in the K-4 school came to class last Thursday.
"I know some of the kids were a little concerned about security," she said.
The increased security at American institutions abroad comes after weeks of speculation that terrorist groups aligned with Iraq might be prepared to strike targets associated with the U.S.-led coalition opposing that country.
According to a report last week in The Washington Post, executives and security officials of top U.S. defense contractors and other large corporations recently held a closed-door "terrorism roundtable," where they concluded that prime targets for terrorism included U.S. government facilities, private American schools, and other American installations in Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and other areas.
"The thought is repugnant, but I agree with the assessment" that schools overseas could be such a target, Robert H. Kupperman, senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and an expert on terrorism, said in an interview last week.
"The likelihood of terrorism is great," he said. "The targets will be European and Middle Eastern at first, particularly Americans abroad."
In Athens, the American Community School closed for several days beginning Jan. 17. Also, security was tightened at the American School of London.
The threat was so real to the headmaster of another such school in a major Western European city that he pleaded that it not be mentioned in print.
"We are rather unknown in this city and I would like to keep it that way," the headmaster said.
Meanwhile, in a number of Middle Eastern and neighboring countries with large Moslem populations, the State Department has evacuated some of its personnel, in part out of a fear that pro-Iraq demonstrations could materialize and pose a security threat.
These include countries such as Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, and Pakistan.
Several American-curriculum schools--including those in Algiers, Algeria; Khartoum, Sudan; and Karachi, Pakistan--have closed for up to two weeks in light of the Gulf conflict.
In Saudi Arabia, even after the war began, the U.S. Embassy was maintaining that it was safe for American citizens to remain in the country.
"We continue to be guided by the advice of the U.S. State Department, and their advice is that they do not see the need for an evacuation," said William Tracy, a spokesman for Aramco Services Company in Houston, the U.S. affiliate of Saudi Aramco, the giant state-owned oil company that employs many American workers, including teachers for the company-run schools in and around Dhahran.
"Most of the people we have talked to are feeling more calm and comfortable now than before [Operation Desert Storm began], because in their opinion, the U.S. military is being effective," he said.
Concern about the safety of American students has also affected some education-related travel or exchanges both overseas and at home.
Based on a Jan. 13 State Department advisory telling all Americans to leave Israel, the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, based in Miami, the next day evacuated the 10 students it had there, according to Yisroel Cohen, the program's chief executive officer.
The students, who had been scheduled to leave Israel Jan. 22, completed seven weeks of the eight-week academic program near Tel Aviv.
Program officials are canceling the February session, for which students would have departed Jan. 30, Mr. Cohen said last week. He said he would resume the program as soon as the State Department lifted its advisory.
The Gulf crisis has had a drastic impact on his program's enrollment, Mr. Cohen said. Enrollment had fallen steadily since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2. The June 1990 session had 238 students, he said, while the September one had just 61. Eighty-six students were originally scheduled for the November program, which ended up with just the 10 who were later evacuated.
Exchange programs with Turkey, a U.S. ally that borders Iraq, have also raised worries among some parents and local American sponsors.
But officials of AFS Intercultural Programs and Rotary International's youth-exchange programs, which both have students in Turkey, said late last week that they did not believe them to be in danger.
Scott D. Ramey, a spokesman for AFS, said his organization decided Jan. 17 not to evacuate its 26 students there, 17 of whom are American, after consulting with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Embassy, and the Turkish government.
While security officials and AFS believe the students are safer if they do not try to leave, he added, AFS policy is to honor any requests for an early departure.
Rotary International, which has 20 to 30 American students in Turkey, also does not plan an evacuation, but is advising its students there to heed a U.S. Embassy request to register with the embassy, according to Mim Neal, Rotary's media-relations manager. Such action would enable the embassy to keep track of American citizens if an evacuation became necessary, Ms. Neal said.
AFS students had registered with the embassy on their entry into the country, Mr. Ramey said.
Both the AFS and Rotary students arrived in Turkey in July for one-year stays, officials of the groups said.
In a security briefing Jan. 16 in Turkey, the AFS students were told they were safest with their host families and were cautioned not to raise their visibility by participating in political demonstrations, according to Mr. Ramey.
While Rotary had been told Jan. 15 that air travel for Americans out of Turkey was difficult because of reduced commercial service, it did not believe any of its students wanted to leave.
"As far as we know there isn't mass panic among them," Ms. Neal said. Land travel is still open, she added.
But parents and U.S. Rotary Clubs that sponsored the students have been concerned about the situation, she acknowledged.
Ms. Neal said Rotary was expecting the Persian Gulf war to prompt parents or sponsoring clubs to pull students from foreign exchanges already arranged, but added that she could not predict which ones might be affected.
AFS last week received calls from parents concerned about children participating in exchange programs throughout Europe. "We've had calls from parents of a kid in Switzerland who want [the student] out," Mr. Ramey said.
He said once parents are reassured about his organization's diplomatic connections and evacuation experience, they often withdraw the request. But he said he foresees the possibility that parents will want to cut short even those exchanges in Western Europe.
Youth for Understanding, an international student-exchange group based in Washington, does not have high-school students in or near the Middle East, and said last week it had no plans to alter its programs.
"We generally feel [participating students'] safety is quite good," said Kate Perrin, the organization's director of public affairs.
"Obviously we will be very closely monitoring all State Department advisories," she said.
In this country, meanwhile, trips to the nation's capital were points of anxiety for Washington-area school officials, both because of the threat of terrorism and potentially volatile political demonstrations.
John A. Murphy, superintendent of schools in Prince George's County, Md., a Washington suburb, last week canceled all field trips into the capital until further notice. The move was a "precaution," said Bonnie S. Jenkins, director of public affairs for the Maryland district.
She said she did not know if such trips had been planned by any of Prince George's 171 schools but added that such plans would have been likely because of the district's proximity of the capital.
Ms. Jenkins had never heard of a similar order in her 17 years with the county's schools.
In the Virginia suburbs of Washington, another school district suspended trips for Jan. 15 only, the day of the United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The decision was made because of several political demonstrations slated for that day, said Dolores Bohen, an assistant superintendent for the Fairfax County school district.
She said the decision was "a typical thing for us" because the district often curtails trips for safety-related reasons.
She did not know if any of the district's 200 schools had any field trips scheduled for that day.
Vol. 10, Issue 18, Page 1, 14Published in Print: January 23, 1991, as American Schools Overseas Redouble Security Efforts