School Climate & Safety

Schools Abroad Brace Against Terrorism

By Sean Cavanagh — October 08, 2004 7 min read
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When Ardie Geldman was growing up in the West Rogers Park neighborhood on the north side of Chicago years ago, he and his classmates were routinely encouraged to pick up any trash cluttering the streets. It was their civic duty, as then-Mayor Richard J. Daley and the city’s omnipresent signs reminded them: Keep Chicago Clean!

These days, as an administrator for a network of elementary and secondary schools in Israel, Mr. Geldman offers starkly different advice to students who see a stray paper bag or an odd-looking piece of litter near any of their buildings: Avoid it and notify authorities immediately.

Those precautions, and others like them, have taken on renewed relevance for school officials in Israel and other countries in the weeks since a 52-hour hostage standoff at a school in southern Russia resulted in the deaths of more than 330 people, about half of them children.

The horrific incident underscored the vulnerability of schools around the world, where the scope of security varies greatly, school leaders and private consultants say. It has also prompted administrators to re-evaluate the safeguards on their campuses, a task that has become familiar to them in the wake of terrorist incidents in recent years, some of them affecting students.

Mr. Geldman’s schools rely on fences, security guards, and other barriers to repulse potential attacks. But equally vital is the commitment of parents, students, and members of the communities near the 60 campuses run by AMIT (roughly translated from Hebrew as Americans for Israel and the Torah) to remain alert for suspicious activity, Mr. Geldman said. Those warnings were reinforced after the killings in Russia.

“Nobody walks into an Israeli school freely and openly,” Mr. Geldman, an executive director and fund-raiser for the AMIT schools, said in a recent phone interview from his Jerusalem office.

In staging the attack in Beslan, Russia, last month, Chechen militants apparently succeeded in navigating the surrounding community unnoticed before taking students and school employees hostage, he noted. The incident at Middle School No. 1, serving 6- to 16-year-olds, ended in deadly bursts of explosions and gunfire, as Russian troops stormed the building, and well-armed militants, some of whom had wrapped themselves in explosives, apparently fought to keep them out.

“In Israel, it would be unlikely for a gang of terrorists to drive freely to a school,” said Mr. Geldman, whose program runs facilities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and smaller towns throughout the country. “The terrorists have to get to the school to carry out their nefarious deed.”

Protections Vary

Many of AMIT’s students, who are in grades 1-12, come from disadvantaged families and rely on public transportation to get to its campuses. Administrators work with parents in some areas to arrange car pools so children can, when possible, avoid public buses, the frequent target of bombings in Israel in recent years. Much of AMIT’s security has been established in coordination with the Israeli government, Mr. Geldman said.

Israel’s Ministry of Education assesses the security needs of all the country’s schools and works with local police in establishing campus-specific guidelines for how they should be protected, Ido Aharoni, a spokesman for the country’s consulate in New York, wrote in an e- mail.

In other countries, particularly in the developing world, school security is often hampered by a lack of financial resources. Across broad swaths of Africa, for example, many schools have doors that don’t lock and broken windows, said May Rihani, a senior vice president at the Academy for Educational Development, who has worked in many nations on that continent and in the Middle East.

In Africa, the chief worry among many school leaders is not armed intruders but the risk that girls will be sexually assaulted heading to or from school, said Ms. Rihani, whose Washington-based organization works to improve education in developing countries.

“I wouldn’t call the issue only ‘security.’ I would call it ‘safety,’” Ms. Rihani said. A lack of protection for female students, she said, leads many girls to quit school.

Many schools in the United States boosted security or updated their safety procedures following the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. Those steps included limiting the number of school entrances and exits, requiring all visitors to check in with school personnel, and adopting detailed emergency-response plans.

Nonetheless, security experts say protections vary greatly between individual schools and districts in the United States. Some contend that school leaders, moreover, have grown complacent in the years since Columbine, despite the heightened attention to security throughout American society after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist assaults against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

A 2003 survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers found that 76 percent of more than 700 school security officials polled believed their facilities were not adequately prepared to respond to a terrorist attack. Sixty-two percent said their emergency-response plans had not been adequately rehearsed.

Security measures in foreign countries have been similarly influenced by school tragedies and near-misses. Israeli school officials remember a 1974 attack by Palestinian terrorists on a school in the northern Israeli city of Ma’alot, which resulted in the deaths of more than 20 Jewish children.

French law-enforcement leaders began more closely coordinating security with school officials following a 1993 incident in Neuilly-sur-Seine, an upscale suburb of Paris, in which an intruder took hundreds of students hostage, recalls Nicolas DeLeffe, a former police superintendent in Paris. The hostage-taker was eventually killed, and no children died. But today, police and school officials typically meet at the beginning of each school year to work out the details of security at each campus, said Mr. DeLeffe, whose former division included 50 schools.

Fences and Guards

In Paris, it is common to have at least one policeman in front of each school, who is charged with keeping traffic moving and checking for suspicious activity, Mr. DeLeffe said. All schools in his division at that time had restricted access to their buildings, which typically meant a limited number of doors and separate entrances for older and younger students.

“We have changed our vision of security around the school,” said Mr. DeLeffe, who now works on security issues at the French Embassy in Washington. “There is a very efficient partnership.”

The Russian school assault appears to have galvanized parents as well as security officials. Calvert Education Services, a Hunt Valley, Md., nonprofit that provides materials to families of home- schooled students, received 166 inquiries from Russia, Eastern Europe, and former Soviet republics about home instruction in a two-week period shortly after the Beslan attack. For the entire previous year, Calvert received only 20 requests from those countries, said Bob Graham, a Calvert spokesman.

In some cases, attacks directed at visible American outposts have prompted tighter security at schools abroad. Not long after the U.S. Embassy in Kenya was bombed in 1998, officials at the International School of Kenya, a private school serving the children of diplomats, missionaries, and other expatriates from roughly 60 countries, constructed a fence around the campus in the Nairobi metropolitan area.

Access to the school also has become more restricted in recent years, and visits by outsiders are closely scrutinized, Superintendent Areta A. Williams said in an interview. The pre-K-12 school has its own security staff and employs a private company for additional protection. In addition to concerns about a large-scale attack, everyday crime is a worry at the school, where some teachers have been victims of off-campus carjackings and thefts. Since the incident in Russia last month, Ms. Williams has held meetings with the school’s board and its staff to weigh additional measures.

“It’s hard to know how far to go in doing this without frightening people,” Ms. Williams said. Parents, she noted, have been supportive of steps the school has taken."We’re all in this together,” she said. “We have to cooperate with them to make it work.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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