School Climate & Safety

Districts Rethink Availability of Data on School Security

By Sean Cavanagh & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 19, 2004 9 min read
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The news was vague, possibly months old, and transmitted from halfway around the world, but it eventually arrived in school districts in Florida, Michigan, Oregon, and other states with the urgency of a fire alarm: A man detained in Iraq was found with computer disks containing information about crisis planning, emergency procedures, and possibly even floor plans for several U.S. schools.

Since those initial reports surfaced late last month, federal authorities have said that the intentions of the man, who apparently culled data from the Internet, may have been harmless.

But administrators whose schools were mentioned in the reports and security experts agree the incident underscores a challenge for districts across the country: knowing how and when to restrict access to information such as emergency procedures and school floor plans.

In most states, those documents are typically available by law to anyone who requests them, experts on public-records law say. And in some cases, accessing detailed school designs is as easy as searching the Internet, a cursory review of Web sites by Education Week showed.

Some officials say, however, that limiting access to certain school information is necessary, when safety concerns outweigh the public’s right to know.

When it comes to releasing school crisis-response plans, “the benefits could not possibly outweigh the risk,” said Kathi Slaughter, a spokeswoman for the education department in Iowa, which passed a law in 2002 giving districts the right to keep certain emergency-preparedness documents confidential. “We would advise districts not to hand out any emergency plans.”

A lawyer for the Iowa Association of School Boards, which strongly backed the law, said it was more a response to school shooting incidents—in which assailants apparently could predict how schools would respond to crises—than to specific worries about terrorism. Still, Ms. Slaughter acknowledged that many state officials were reluctant to close public records.

“A lot of our [school] buildings across the state are under renovation,” Ms. Slaughter said. “From a district perspective, it’s a public service to put up floor plans to show how districts are spending their money.”

Districts on Alert

Public-records experts know of only a handful of states that have taken similar steps to limit public access to school emergency-response and building records.

Florida passed a law in 2002 that exempts government entities, including school systems, from having to release blueprints of facilities. That law does not necessarily prohibit the public from looking at those documents, but it can require individuals to go to court and give a reason for seeing them, said Barbara Peterson, the president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based organization that advocates open-records policies.

Several school officials acknowledged that limiting access to such documents—particularly in the case of building designs and floor plans—is difficult, because they are routinely housed by city or county building departments.

Worries about the security of school blueprints have heightened in several districts in recent weeks. Late last month, federal authorities said they had notified the San Diego Unified district and at least five others that were mentioned in a public report on school crisis planning, posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site, that was found on a CD in the possession of a man taken into custody in Iraq. (“Man Detained in Iraq With U.S. Guide on School Crisis Plans,” Oct. 6, 2004.)

Then came more media reports this month, citing anonymous federal sources, saying the man in Iraq had had at least one other CD that contained information on additional districts in six states. The material included school floor plans.

Federal authorities have said that the man, whom they have declined to identify, may simply have been collecting the information for general research on schools, without harmful motives. One FBI official said last week that the disks were recovered over the summer.

Districts mentioned on the second CD said they were contacted by the FBI in August and September. Officials in two of those districts—Salem-Keizer, Ore., and Birch Run, Mich.—said in interviews last week that law-enforcement authorities told them not to release the information to the public until they were given clearance to do so.

Birch Run Superintendent Wayne Wright said he followed those instructions—only to receive a call not long afterwards from ABC News, asking him to comment on a story about the disks.

The next day, at least 10 radio and television trucks were lined up outside the 1,875-student district’s offices, Mr. Wright said. The superintendent, who still does not know exactly what information was on the disks, fielded numerous calls from parents asking why he hadn’t notified them sooner.

“It’s probably the worst day I had to go through in 30 years of working in education,” Mr. Wright said.

Tighter Access

Since then, Birch Run officials have reviewed the information on their Web site and are considering new security precautions at their schools. Other districts mentioned in the CDs are considering or taking similar steps. San Diego officials moved some emergency-procedure plans from their Internet site to an internal site available only to employees, a spokesman said—even though those plans weren’t very specific to begin with.

Officials in the 38,000-student Salem-Keizer district in Oregon may ask state legislators to consider ways of limiting public access to school floor plans, district spokeswoman Mary Paulson said. Federal authorities told Salem-Keizer officials that material on an Iraq disk mentioned their schools, and that it contained school floor plans—though not for their district, she said.

Ms. Paulson questioned why school officials were not told sooner about the CDs found in Iraq. “If it was important to tell us, why wasn’t it important to tell us in July?” she said, citing published media reports saying the disks were found then.

On Oct. 6, around the time the story of the second disk began to unfold, the federal Department of Education issued a letter to school officials nationwide, offering tips on school security that had been forwarded by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The letter said the notice was not being issued because of any specific threat, but as advice from U.S. security authorities who had studied a terrorist attack at a Russian school in September, which resulted in the deaths of at least 334 people, including 156 children.

Kenneth S. Trump, a school security consultant, suggested that the Education Department’s notice may have been aimed at trying to reassure the public that the agency takes potential terrorist risks to schools seriously. Like some districts, the department too often downplays security concerns because of worries about scaring the public, he contended.

“Public officials [are] in fear of creating fear,” said Mr. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, in Cleveland.

But department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said the timing of the letter was based on when the agency received advice from law-enforcement authorities, and no other factors. “Education is everybody’s business, as is homeland security,” she said in a statement. “When we come across information, we share it.”

Wide-Open Web?

As some of the school systems notified by law-enforcement officials took new security steps, a basic Internet search last week showed that floor plans, diagrams, and other details about dozens of schools in other parts of the country are accessible through a few taps of a computer keyboard.

Several district-run and general Web sites offer information aimed at helping parents and students find their way around schools. Other information is housed on sites touting award-winning building designs or projects undertaken by individual architectural firms.

One such site gave detailed floor plans for both a middle and a high school in a Pennsylvania district, including the locations of classrooms, administrative offices, locker rooms, school entrances, elevators, and utility rooms. An official with that district—which Education Week is not identifying because of the sensitivity of the information—was alarmed to learn that those details were so readily available, and said the information would be taken down immediately. The district relies on an outside consultant to maintain the Web site’s content.

“We try to stay abreast of this stuff,” the Pennsylvania official said, “but it’s an ongoing battle.”

A 5,000-student district in New York state recently removed graphics detailing plans for a new school and renovations at several others from its Web site as a precaution, not in response to news about the Iraq disks, or any perceived threat, a spokesperson said. That district also rewrote its policy for Web site content to prohibit the posting of floor plans and other information that could make the school vulnerable.

The Web site for the National Clearinghouse on School Facilities, which is financed by the Department of Education, includes links to architecture-related sources and references to trade publications that contain potentially revealing information on selected schools. The site also provides links to emergency-response plans for schools and districts.

Those postings were made available “for sharing information, to save districts the time in developing these from scratch,” said Judy Marks, the associate director of the clearinghouse in Washington. “We serve the function of pointing people to appropriate information,” she added.

While some information is publicly available, districts could take basic steps to make sensitive documents more secure, Mr. Trump said, such as requiring those seeking to look at floor plans to come to school offices and view them in person. By doing so, school leaders at least have some way of knowing who is asking to see that material, he said.

Common-Sense Steps

Mark M. Hankewycz, a senior manager at Gage-Babcock & Associates, a national company that districts consult on construction and security, recommends several steps for securing documents. Some are common sense, he says, such as trying to ensure that maintenance workers and school employees do not leave documents in unlocked vehicles.

Other precautions include requiring contractors to monitor closely their copies of school building plans and destroy ones they don’t need. Districts should also set up designated areas in their offices for viewing such documents, Mr. Hankewycz added. Still, roughly three-quarters of districts nationwide are not taking such precautions, estimated Mr. Hankewycz, who works in the company’s Chantilly, Va., office.

Too often, “there’s no authentication of who came in and reviewed the files,” he said. “It could have been someone with a genuine need, who’s doing a construction or renovation of the school, or it could be someone who wants to do harm.”


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