School Climate & Safety

Schools Have a Spectrum Of Responses to Alert System

By Michelle R. Davis — April 03, 2002 5 min read
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A five-color system to alert the country to terrorist threats may change the way some schools deal with security measures. But for others, it is just a rainbow.

Last month, Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge announced the new advisory system, which uses a spectrum that includes green for low-risk days and red for the most serious threats. While the new system won’t officially take effect until the end of July, Mr. Ridge has said the country is in a code-yellow state— elevated alert, the middle category—until further notice.

Many school administrators say they’re struggling with how to incorporate the new color- coded system into security plans they’ve been formulating or updating since the terrorist attacks last September. Some say the federal guidance will just help reinforce the need to keep awareness high.

“Having those alerts available to you provides the opportunity to pay greater notice to security issues,” said Lee McCaskill, the principal at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York City. On Sept. 11, students there watched from the upper floors of the school’s 10-story building as the World Trade Center towers fell.

Following Sept. 11, Mr. McCaskill put new safety procedures in place at the school, including bar- coded identification cards for all adults. Mr. McCaskill said the new national alert system would help people make informed decisions.

“For those who have to be very vigilant about protecting us—principals or the people down at the airport—on a given day, they might be a little lax,” he said, “but on an orange day they won’t tolerate certain things.”

While green (low risk of an attack) and red (severe risk) signal the extremes, other colors come into play in the system Mr. Ridge announced. Blue signifies a guarded condition and a general risk of terrorist attacks; yellow means an elevated condition and a significant risk of terrorist attacks; orange is a high risk of terrorist attacks.

Federal agencies will be required to follow the alert system’s security guidelines as they evolve. Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Department of Justice will manage the system.

The proposed alert system in its current form includes general advice, suggesting additional precautions at public events when the code is orange, for instance.

However, a senior administration official in the White House Office of Homeland Security said the system’s requirements won’t be legally imposed on states and municipalities or schools. But Mr. Ridge has said the goal is to motivate local areas to draw up their own, complementary plans.

Still, the administration hopes that schools as well as businesses and local agencies will find ways to incorporate the system into their own security. While the system is still being developed, an administration official said it would likely allow for different threat levels to go into effect for specific geographic areas, or even industries, such as the agricultural sector.

A Local Option

The Office of Homeland Security came up with the color-alert approach following several general alerts issued during the past year by Mr. Ashcroft as well as Mr. Ridge calling attention to the possibility of terrorist attacks. Mr. Ridge has said the new system constitutes an easily understandable way to keep the public informed and address those threats.

But Mr. Ridge, who was the governor of Pennsylvania until he accepted the White House post, also said it’s up to state and local jurisdictions to decide what to do.

Jacqueline Jacoby, the superintendent of schools in Glastonbury, Conn., said she and a host of state leaders have been meeting to ensure communication among all those agencies. Ms. Jacoby, whose district serves 6,700 students, chairs an ad hoc emergency committee the state formed after Sept. 11.

The committee has already put together an emergency e- mail list for all of the state’s school district superintendents, and has vastly improved communications among several state agencies, she said. The federal color-coded alert system, Ms. Jacoby said, will help her decide when the e-mail list needs to be activated or if field trips should be canceled.

After Sept. 11, her district put a moratorium on field trips that involve airplane flight, and the district now provides cellphones to teachers for emergency use. But Ms. Jacoby said that she has reservations about the number of colors in the system, and that only the extremes of red or orange are likely to cause people to stop and think. She said it would be clearer if officials skipped the colors and just said there was a severe threat or little threat.

“You don’t want people to have to think about what they have to do and say, ‘I don’t remember a yellow from a purple,’” Ms. Jacoby said.

Mr. McCaskill, the Brooklyn principal, said he didn’t see the need for five levels. “If they say we have a special warning, we’re going to be alert, whether it’s a level one or a level five or a yellow or bright red, " he said.

Many American schools already have in-depth security plans, crafted after the rash of school shootings, including the well-publicized killings at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. It may be difficult to incorporate the federal color-coding system into existing security plans, said Barbara Knisely, a spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators.

“A lot of feedback I’ve gotten is that schools weren’t making changes after September 11 because they already had plans set in place after Columbine,” Ms. Knisely said. “Terrorism wasn’t on their minds then, but the policies they had in place were workable in light of September 11.”

Districts near possible high-risk sites for terrorism, such as nuclear-power facilities, typically have long had detailed emergency plans, though some have updated those plans since Sept. 11. (“Schools Near High-Risk Sites Update Safety Plans,” Nov. 21, 2001.) Reginald M. Felton, the president of the Montgomery County, Md., school board, said the 136,600-student district just outside Washington must be sure the color coding in the federal alert plan doesn’t conflict with existing systems. In Montgomery County, the district uses color codes to signify weather situations as well as other scenarios, Mr. Felton said.

David Larson, the executive director for the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said the more specific information provided by the five color- coded levels in the federal alert system should help school officials weigh security decisions. The earlier, general alerts given out by Attorney General Ashcroft and Mr. Ridge were not specific enough, he said.

“I wanted to know, ‘What does that mean?’ Did somebody blow their nose the wrong way, or do they know that on such-and-such day, terrorists are going to blow something up?” Mr. Larson said. “These alert levels give us all more information.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as Schools Have a Spectrum Of Responses to Alert System

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