School Climate & Safety

As Crisis Unfolds, Educators Balance Intricate Demands

By Karla Scoon Reid & Catherine Gewertz — September 19, 2001 11 min read
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Within minutes of the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States, the reverberations rippled through the nation’s classrooms. School leaders agonized over whether to send students home to their families or to keep their buildings open—as one reassuring sign of stability in an unhinged world.

Even outside the targeted cities, districts from Philadelphia to San Francisco suspended classes, postponed football games, and called off field trips last week, some out of concern for students’ safety, others as a sign of respect for the victims.

Parents raced to schools to hold their children close. Students and teachers made frantic calls to friends and relatives they feared were working in or near New York City’s World Trade Center or the Pentagon, just outside Washington. Hijacked jetliners smashed into those two workplaces the morning of Sept. 11, transforming them into scenes of devastation.

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In New York, Washington, and their suburbs, armies of counselors were mobilized for dispatch to schools as students returned to their classrooms late last week.

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. Now, they were teaching urgent lessons about acts of terror and hatred. Educators also prepared for the possible aftermath for students: from feelings of fear, grief, anger, and depression to bomb threats or retaliation against classmates.

“Sometimes I think that the entire burden often falls upon a school district,” said Marleen Wong, the director of the Los Angeles school district’s crisis teams. “It’s a mixed blessing.”

While most U.S. educators have few experiences to draw on in responding to the scale of destruction unfolding last week, guidance on dealing with catastrophes abounded from national school security experts and Oklahoma City school colleagues still haunted by the 1995 bombing of the federal Alfred P. Murrah Building.

Consistently, they advised school leaders to preserve as much of the normal routine as possible—a stabilizing signal to children—and to trust their instincts.

Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., schools outside Washington, meets with principals to plan for reopening schools last week following the terrorist attacks.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

Sally R. Cole, the principal of Emerson Secondary School in Oklahoma City, said that even if schools aren’t immediately at risk, officials must gauge the emotional temperature of their communities.

“If you find that the community is in such a state that they need their children home with them, then you need to close the school and children should go home,” she said.

As clouds of ash and debris engulfed Lower Manhattan the day of the attack, all but seven of the New York City schools, which serve 1.1 million students, remained open. The District of Columbia, with 67,000 students, also kept classes running. Administrators locked their campuses, reasoning that children would be safer at school.

“We did not want to send a million children out in the street,” said Catie Marshall, a school system spokeswoman in New York City, where some children spent the night at their schools because parents were unable to reach them.

Both districts were wary of sending children to empty homes as the disaster unfolded live on television. They also were reluctant to release children who may have lost a parent or relative in the attacks.

Profound Confusion

But staying in school wasn’t easy on a day of profound confusion.

One elementary school principal in Arlington, Va., where smoke billowing from the Pentagon could be seen from the playground, restricted her students to the second floors and above. The extensive glass on the first floor—potentially lethal to small children in a blast—was too dangerous, she said.

In Washington, teachers at Ben W. Murch Elementary School struggled to relay information about the situation to their students. The teachers fielded probing questions and helped calm rattled nerves. Some read from scripts prepared by district officials outlining the facts of the attacks.

After hearing the news from her teacher, 6th grader Gabriella Abate became increasingly frightened as more and more of her friends left campus early with their parents. At lunch, Gabriella and her friends ducked under a table when they heard a plane fly overhead.

“I didn’t really know what was happening,” she said. “There were only six people left in my class.”

Most Maryland schools released students early, reasoning that it was a time that families would need to be together. But elsewhere in the Washington area, in the capital’s Virginia suburbs, the thinking went differently.

Kitty Porterfield, the spokeswoman for the 160,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district, said officials there could see from a quick look at their television set that roads out of Washington were already clogged with people fleeing the Pentagon blast.

“When we dismiss, we put 1,200 buses on the road,” she said. “Considering the congestion already on the road, and the fact that many of our parents work in the District [of Columbia], we knew that if we sent our kids home, they would go home to empty houses. The kids were really safest in school.”

Fairfax County school leaders received news of the attack as they sat in their weekly 8 a.m. meeting. Only 45 minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, they had decided to keep schools open. That decision was followed by a series of others, each an answer to a question raised at the table.

Do we have any field trips today in New York City or Washington? No. But all local field trips were canceled. What about child care? Hours were extended, with the unspoken understanding that teachers would stay as late as necessary for all children to be picked up. What about after-school and evening activities? Not considered crucial, they were canceled.

On the West Coast, where some residents initially feared additional attacks because all of the hijacked planes had been scheduled flights to California, the 62,000-student San Francisco schools shut down. But the Los Angeles Unified district’s 730,000 students, many of whom had watched the terror unfold on television before they came to school, stayed in class.

“We cannot be paralyzed by inaction or fear,” Los Angeles Superintendent Roy Romer wrote in a memo circulated to all school staff members the day of the attacks. “This is what terrorists hope to achieve. As the cornerstone of a democratic society, schools educate children. It is crucial that we continue in that mission.”

Additional security officers were dispatched to Chicago’s schools to seek out “suspicious activity,” while Cleveland closed its campuses the day after the attacks to acknowledge a day of mourning. Students in Broward County, Fla., were barred from watching television, sparing them from a barrage of images from the disasters.

American flags outside the nation’s schools were lowered to half-staff. Outside the entrance to Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Md., hung a sheet emblazoned with the words: “God Bless America.”

Changing Course

By the evening of Sept. 11, even districts that had stayed open had begun to revise their approach to the next day.

New York City suspended classes to give staff members time to devise strategies for helping students still reeling from the events. District leaders huddled in closed-door meetings with city officials, principals, counselors, and others to hash out the detailed plans.

In a mammoth conference call Tuesday night, emergency-management officials and leaders of the District of Columbia schools and those in nearly a dozen surrounding school districts decided it would be best to close on Wednesday. Without knowing if there would be further attacks, officials believed it safest for students to stay home. They also wanted to make the hundreds of school buildings available for emergency shelters if necessary.

But the chief reason for closing schools was the need for mourning time, officials said.

“Flags are flying at half-staff for a reason, and our schools were closed for that same reason,” said Brian J. Porter, the spokesman for the 136,000-student Montgomery County, Md., schools.

By last Thursday, most schools had reopened, but the day was far from routine. New York City schools opened two hours late, allowing teachers to be trained to cope with their shell-shocked students’ needs. Schools in Lower Manhattan below 14th Street remained closed as rescue crews searched for survivors in the mountains of rubble at the site of the World Trade Center.

James A. Kadamus, the deputy commissioner of elementary, middle, and secondary education for New York state, said retired teachers might be called into action to replace educators who lost family members in the assaults.

Schools in Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs had teams of crisis counselors on standby. Returning to the lessons abruptly halted by the violence of Sept. 11 was a Herculean task: The tragedy’s impact became all too real as some desks went empty.

Three District of Columbia teachers and three students were killed on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

A student at Gonzaga College High School, a Roman Catholic school in Washington, lost his mother, a flight attendant, on the same plane.

In suburban Chappaqua, N.Y., Principal Kenneth Mitchell attempted to quell early rumors among students at Bell Middle School that as many as seven students had lost family members. No losses had been confirmed late last week; instead, there was good news that several loved ones had been evacuated or not present at the time of the attacks.

Duck and Cover

While the attacks caught an entire nation off guard, schools are better prepared to manage crisis situations than they were 20 years ago, said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

Mr. Stephens predicted that school districts will tighten security, but cautioned that each community must determine what action to take to make campuses safer without turning them into “armed camps.”

In addition to responding to the immediate emotional needs of staff members and students, districts must be prepared to anticipate “spinoff incidents” from the assaults, said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.

Bomb threats will likely crop up on campuses, he said, and Muslim and Arab-American students may become the target of hateful comments. School officials must become more aggressive about monitoring students’ comments and behavior to prevent the escalation of such taunts into violence, he said.

The disasters also will prompt districts to review and revamp their existing crisis-preparedness plans, Mr. Trump said, as many did following the bombing in Oklahoma City or the Columbine High School shootings in Jefferson County, Colo. Districts that have “plans for the sake of having plans,” he added, will likely adjust that approach.

“Does it mean we need duck-and-cover drills like the nuclear-threat days?” Mr. Trump said. “Some districts are doing that.”

He stressed that most school systems need to review their plans to prevent violent incidents on their campuses and determine “how well prepared they are to manage the incidents they can’t prevent.” Such preparation includes assigning key personnel to specific roles, including communicating with parents, talking to children, and putting security precautions in place.

Ann M. Allen wasn’t thinking about prevention when a powerful blast blew the windows—and their frames—from Emerson Secondary School in Oklahoma City in 1995. Her school was two blocks from the Murrah Building.

Despite having crisis plans, Ms. Allen said her instincts kicked into overdrive seconds after the blast. “So many people are depending on you, so for that reason your supervisory and leadership skills rise to the top,” said Ms. Allen, now an area administrator for the 40,000-student district.

Ms. Cole, who is now the principal of the school, said her first thoughts were for the safety of her students and staff.

“We go into this survival mode,” she said. “You can’t afford to feel that sorrow or pain or devastation if you’re going to do what you have to do right now for the children in the building.”

Last week, the memories of the Murrah Building’s destruction became too vivid for some to bear at Emerson. Some people, overcome with sorrow, went home. “It’s almost like having third-degree burns,” said Ms. Allen, who lost six friends in the bombing. “Every time you get too close, you feel the heat from the match.”

It was that same searing loss that touched countless Americans after last week’s violence. A blanket of shock and grief descended, muffling many schools.

John Williams, the admissions director of Thayer Academy, a private secondary school south of Boston, walked across campus at pickup time on Tuesday of last week. Usually, it’s an occasion for boisterousness and chatter. But on that day, on the lush green lawns far from the disaster sites, everything was different.

“I have never,” Mr. Williams said, “heard silence like that in my life.”

Staff Writers Lisa Fine and Andrew Trotter contributed to this report.


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