School Climate & Safety

Schools Plan Responses To Bioterrorism

By Darcia Harris Bowman — October 31, 2001 8 min read
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It took only one anthrax-related death in faraway Florida to convince Lawrence Township district officials that they needed to buffer their Indianapolis-area schools against biological terrorism.

Assistant Superintendent Duane Hodgin promptly called in a team of local emergency workers to review response plans for biological and chemical threats. In mid-October, officials of the 16,000-student district sent updated safety procedures and basic information about anthrax to every administrator, teacher, and staff member. And principals warned students and parents that anthrax pranksters would be arrested and jailed.

“We knew it was only a matter of time before someone called in a threat or a hoax, and we wanted to have procedures in place before that happened,” Mr. Hodgin said.

As anthrax stories dominated the headlines last week, national groups and federal and state agencies—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Postal Service, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the Alabama, Indiana, and New York education departments—were issuing guidance on how to respond to bioterrorism threats, especially mail that might be contaminated with the anthrax bacterium.

Anthrax is a rare disease that is not contagious, but is potentially deadly. At least 11 cases of infection were confirmed as of last week in people who had come into contact—either by inhalation or on the skin—with anthrax-causing bacteria delivered through the mail.

But the Bush administration is urging the public not to panic, and federal health officials advise against private stockpiling of antibiotics and purchases of gas masks.

What Schools Need to Do

Did the Lawrence Township district overreact? School security experts don’t think so.

“A very important thing schools need to do right now is make sure they have the best possible lines of communication with their local first responders: police, fire departments, and health officials,” said Rex Hagens, the director of the National Resource Center for Safe Schools at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore.

Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., agreed. He added that schools need to “develop threat-assessment [procedures] for terrorist acts and clearly define terrorism in school policies.”

But figuring out how best to safeguard schools against a weapon like anthrax promises to be difficult.

As news of more anthrax-related deaths broke last week in Washington, the administration was criticized in some quarters as having been too slow in responding to the threat.

In newspapers, on television, and in testimony before Congress, health officials were openly disagreeing about whether government agencies were prepared to respond to mass biological or chemical attacks. Such concerns have risen dramatically since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax incidents.

Some medical professionals have called for reinstating immunization programs for diseases such as smallpox, while others argue the threat is still too remote to risk the side effects of such vaccines.

“We’re all wondering about the answers to some of these questions,” Mr. Hagens said. “The whole country, to some extent, is making this up as we go along.”

Looking for Guidance

Experts say it can be difficult to find bioterrorism guidance crafted specifically for school systems.

“We really look to the government for information on this because it’s not an area where many of our members have much expertise,” said Susan F. Wooley, the executive director of the American School Health Association, a Kent, Ohio-based group for school health-care workers and educators. “That we haven’t seen any information specific to schools is a concern, but it doesn’t surprise me because we often respond to something as it occurs, instead of thinking about it ahead of time.”

Still, many districts were rising to the occasion last week, culling information from Web sites and from state and local health departments.

“What I think schools have seen over the last few years is a lot of copycat incidents after something like this,” said Mary Ellen Hamer, the director of school and community relations for the Lawrence Township district. “The likelihood of actual threats is small, but you have to be ready to respond to hoaxes because they can really terrorize the school community.”

Several schools across the country have had classes disrupted by anthrax scares in recent weeks.

In response, the Alabama education department sent a memorandum to all 128 local superintendents in the state, urging school districts to follow local emergency plans in the event of threats and to alert law-enforcement authorities.

In New York, the state education department distributed mail-handling guidelines to all school districts. Provided by the state health department and the New York State Police, the tip sheet advised school officials to watch for letters with oily stains, envelopes without return addresses, and unexpected mail from foreign countries.

And in Ohio, Ashatoba County emergency-service providers were planning to share new bioterrorism plans last week with the county’s eight district superintendents. There had been several anthrax scares in the county, but none so far in schools.

“Right now, our first concern is training our dispatchers and our first responders,” said Ed Somppi, the director of the county’s emergency-management agency. “We’ll give the districts a copy of the protocol, and if they need further training or information, we’ll come in to do that.”

Meanwhile, Indiana’s Lawrence Township schools had a leg up on most other districts in the country when it came time to craft a response to the anthrax concerns. District officials had drawn up safety guidelines for biohazard and chemical emergencies three years ago, after a nearby private school received an anthrax threat.

So, long before the Oct. 4 case of anthrax contamination in Boca Raton, Fla., employees of the Lawrence Township schools had guidance for handling suspicious packages and activating school-lockdown procedures in the event of a biological threat.

Mr. Hodgin, the assistant superintendent, said they already knew that they should “try to avoid inhaling or touching the substance” suspected of carrying anthrax bacteria, and that they should “contain the substance in the bag or package in which it came.” It took only mild tinkering to update the safety guidelines, he said.

Now, the district’s bioterror plan is being used as a state model. When Mr. Hodgin sent copies of the procedures to the Indiana Department of Education’s safe-schools center, the agency posted them on its Web site for other schools seeking guidance.

Mr. Hodgin recommends that schools follow the process his district went through to devise a plan—by working closely with local emergency-service providers—but he also encourages administrators not to be shy about borrowing someone else’s finished product.

“It’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Part of a Bigger Plan

Even if schools are not prepared to respond specifically to bioterrorism, many are ready for general emergencies, safety experts say.

After the 1999 shooting deaths at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., many schools and districts strengthened their ties to local law-enforcement authorities and emergency-service officials, beefed up communications systems, and drilled teachers and students alike in lockdown and evacuation procedures.

As a result, some administrators are finding they need only add a page to their safety plans to accommodate possible threats like anthrax.

Such is the case for John B. Heskett, the assistant superintendent of the 6,800-student Pattonville, Ohio, school district.

“I’ve met with our police-department personnel and fire-department personnel, and we’re looking at our emergency-response plan to find out what other things we should be thinking of,” Mr. Heskett said.

“What we’re finding is we just have to make modifications,” he said. “We already have a policy for chemical spills, but nothing for dealing with [biological and chemical agents] being sent into the schools.”

The administrator is considering the possibility of storing several days’ supply of food and bottled water at each of the district’s 12 schools in case of a biological or chemical disaster. He also wants the district to review its policy of sending children home in response to such emergencies.

“I tell any parent who calls that school is still the safest place your child can be,” he said. “Always has been, always will be.”

Some experts said reassuring and educating the public may be one of the greatest services schools can provide during times of uncertainty.

“In a real sense, bioterrorism is very much a perceived threat right now, so it’s important to keep things in perspective,” said Mr. Hagens of the National Resource Center for Safe Schools. “Schools can help mitigate the fear factor by sticking to a normal schedule, limiting students’ access to news, and communicating with parents.”

In Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, employees of the 136,600-student school district were being trained last week by the local postmaster on new procedures for sorting mail—even as news broke of two anthrax-related deaths in a nearby post office.

At the same time, district officials were arming health teachers with information on anthrax, smallpox, botulism, and the plague and encouraging them to answer students’ questions and help dispel any unfounded fears, said Russell G. Henke, the health education coordinator for the Montgomery County schools.

“The media overall has really been in a feeding frenzy over this, and it’s fanning a lot of fear,” Mr. Henke said. “We’re answering questions and giving students safety tips ... but we’re not necessarily putting together a lesson plan on [anthrax.] It’s a very rare disease, and we don’t want to make more of it than necessary.”

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