School Climate & Safety

Schools for Military, Diplomatic Offspring Tighten Security

By Mark Walsh — September 19, 2001 3 min read
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Schools serving the children of U.S. military personnel at home and abroad closed temporarily or took other special precautions in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in the United States.

And overseas schools serving the children of American diplomats and expatriate workers also stepped up security but vowed to remain open after brief closings.

“All of our information is that there is nothing to worry about, but there is a heightened security awareness,” said Peter Nanos, the superintendent of the American School of Kuwait, where about one-third of the 1,300 students are American.

Most countries with a U.S. Embassy are served by one or more American-curriculum schools, including nations that have been recent sites of terrorist strikes directed at American military or diplomatic targets, such as Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

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At the Sanaa International School in Sanaa, Yemen, officials consulted with the U.S. Embassy after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon before deciding to close for one day. “The embassy called and suggested we postpone for a day so families could be together,” said James E. Gilson, the director of the school. The school serves some 125 students, including about a dozen Americans.

Yemen was the site of last year’s terrorist attack on the U.S.S. Cole, which killed 17 crew members.

Mr. Gilson, an American who has worked in Yemen for 30 years, said he did not feel especially threatened by the possibility of further terrorism."We wouldn’t expect the school to be a target,” he said.

The U.S. Department of State assists 181 American schools overseas with information and a small amount of funding, but the schools are privately owned.

Keith D. Miller, the director of the department’s office of overseas schools, said he expected most such schools to reopen after brief closings. He noted that even the International School of Kenya, which caters to American families and others in Nairobi, resumed operations after the 1998 truck bomb that tore open the U.S. Embassy there, killing 213 people.

“There is a basic sense of normalcy” at the schools, he said.

‘Threatcon Delta’

For military families, the Department of Defense operates its own school system for 74,000 students in 157 schools abroad and another 34,000 in 70 schools at domestic military installations. Last week, all those schools went on heightened security alert.

Joe Tafoya, the director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, as the school system is called, was visiting schools in Bitburg, Germany, when hijacked jetliners struck their targets back home.

“We immediately went to Threatcon Delta,” he said, referring to the U.S. military’s highest level of alert for terrorism. The military base tightened its security, and the base commander ordered the Defense Department schools closed until Sept. 14.

But it was important that they reopen quickly, Mr. Tafoya said. “When the military is on a mission, child care becomes an important issue,” he said.

Security is also tight at domestic military bases. At Fort Campbell, Ky., home to the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne division, traffic was backing up at base entry points because of stricter identification checks.

“Our problem has been to get teachers, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers on base in time for the children,” said Ray McMullen, the superintendent of the Defense Department schools at the base. The eight schools, enrolling 4,500 students, stayed open last week. “We deal with crises on a military reservation from time to time, so we felt we needed to keep things as regular as possible for the children,” Mr. McMullen said.

Other school districts in military areas also reacted quickly.

In the 37,000-student Norfolk, Va., district, most schools stayed open all week. But it was a different story at two schools on or adjacent to the giant Norfolk Naval Base, said district spokesman George Raiss.

At the base school, “we evacuated children to another public school” after the attacks, he said. At the school just outside the base, a “lockdown” was put into effect, and children were released only to their parents.

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