School Climate & Safety

Panic Over Anthrax Attacks Spreads to Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 24, 2001 6 min read

Discoveries of unidentified white substances, mistakenly feared to be anthrax bacteria, have disrupted schools around the nation in the past two weeks, causing educators to reflect on how best to be prepared to handle the latest perceived threats to school safety.

The United States has been swept with dread of the possible spread of anthrax, caused by the B. anthracis bacterium, as a form of terrorism ever since it was determined that a man died from apparent exposure to anthrax organisms that are believed to have arrived by mail at the American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton, Fla.

Since then, letters addressed to broadcaster Tom Brokaw of NBC News and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., have been found to contain anthrax spores. The bacteria, which resemble a white powder, can cause an infection in the skin, lungs, or gastrointestinal system but only if rubbed into scraped skin, swallowed, or inhaled. In all, health authorities say, dozens of people have been exposed.

At least six confirmed cases of illness or death from anthrax, coming after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, have caused a climate of anxiety in which unknown substances that normally would be ignored are now viewed with suspicion. At least 14 schools have struggled with anthrax scares in the past two weeks, according to media accounts. In some schools, too, pranksters have taken advantage of the situation.

“Any kid with a pen and some flour can bring a district to its knees,” said Myron Q. Thompson, the risk manager for the 33,000-student Fayette County schools in Lexington, Ky., who dealt with an anthrax hoax at a middle school in his district last week.

The district evacuated 800 students from Tates Creek Middle School and relocated them to a nearby high school on Oct. 15 after someone at the middle school received a suspicious letter.

“The chances of anyone pulling off an anthrax attack in the school district are pretty slim, but we needed to take the threat seriously,” Mr. Thompson said. “This took us out of commission for a whole day.”

Appropriate Response

Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based school-safety consulting firm, said educators have responded correctly to the wave of anthrax scares. “Just like we did with the death threats that followed shootings in recent years,” he said, “we want educators to treat all [anthrax] threats seriously.”

Mr. Trump reiterated the advice that he’s given for other dangers: It’s not enough for a school merely to have a crisis plan drawn up. Schools also should have held a full-scale rehearsal of the plan, or at least discussed with those in key roles how such a plan might be applied during various scenarios.

Some educators who dealt with anthrax scares said they learned that their crisis plans should have contained better procedures for communications, particularly with parents.

Most of the 450 students at Naubuc Elementary School in Glastonbury, Conn., were sent home on Oct. 15 after a librarian found an unidentified white substance on the carpet of the school library. About 100 students who had used the library that day were quarantined in their classrooms until local fire and environmental-protection officials determined that the substance was harmless.

Jacqueline Jacoby, the superintendent of the 6,300-student Glastonbury school district, orchestrated communications from outside the school while people with masks and dressed from head to toe in green safety suits conducted an investigation.

“Parents were frightened, particularly when we had had 3-year-olds in the building,” Ms. Jacoby said. She set up a command post at a firehouse, where a school psychologist, a safety officer, and police were on hand to answer questions and calm nerves.

Parents Upset

Ms. Jacoby directed her office staff to call the parents of the children who were being detained, she said, but “we found we couldn’t call them fast enough.” After some parents complained they hadn’t been called, Ms. Jacoby said, she realized that getting word to parents had been a weak link in the district’s protocol for handling a crisis.

Sharon L. Gilchrist, the business manager for St. Simon the Apostle School in Indianapolis, likewise said some parents were left out of the communications loop during an anthrax scare at the 750-student Roman Catholic school the same day.

About 175 children were held in the school cafeteria for several hours after a student found an unidentified white powder under some bleachers in the gymnasium. Ms. Gilchrist, who was locked in the building along with the students, said that teachers kept children calm while local fire and hazardous-materials officials checked out the situation.

But because the incident happened shortly before school was normally dismissed, and many parents had already left home to pick up their children, parents were left waiting in the school parking lot with scant information.

“The parents were—and rightly so—far more upset than the children. We felt the authorities should have provided better information to the parents,” Ms. Gilchrist said, adding that schools officials have since discussed ways to rectify the situation should a similar crisis occur.

Pranks and Hoaxes

Herbert D. Wright, the principal of Reynoldsburg Junior High School in Ohio, meanwhile, informed students that 39-year-old Lucy Manifold, an 8th grade science teacher at the school, was arrested Oct. 15 for allegedly planning an anthrax prank.

Ms. Manifold is accused of placing lime in an envelope and trying to mail it from the school to her brother in Newark, Ohio. The envelope was intercepted by school officials after an aide noticed that it contained a white residue.

Ms. Manifold, charged with inducing panic, theft of school property, and disorderly conduct, described the prank in her own words as “a sick joke,” Mr. Wright said. The school district has suspended her, and a court date has been set for Oct. 25.

Mr. Wright said that after the arrest, “I went into her classrooms and talked with the kids. I said, ‘You know Ms. Manifold best. You know what kind of teacher she is. What questions do you have?’”

Elsewhere, at least three students have been charged in connection with anthrax hoaxes:

  • A 16-year-old student at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Va., was charged with perpetrating a prank, a misdemeanor, for allegedly leaving an envelope containing flour and addressed to the school’s principal in a hallway.
  • James Smith Jr., a 17-year-old student at Palm Coast High School in Florida was arrested last week after allegedly admitting he had spread white powder on a classroom table in the hope of getting out of class. He was charged with planting a hoax weapon of mass destruction, a second-degree felony. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
  • An 8th grader at Galaxy Middle School in Deltona, Fla., was charged with disruption of an educational institution, a misdemeanor, after he allegedly scattered a powdered drink mix in the school.

Mr. Trump, the expert on school safety, said schools should make a few adjustments in light of new awareness of the threat of biological terrorism. Schools that permit students to open mail should stop, he said, and instead have a single school employee assigned to the task who has reviewed guidelines on how to recognize suspicious items.

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