School Climate & Safety

Since Attacks, Schools Said Safer, More Prepared

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 06, 2006 8 min read
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In the weeks and months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, schools rushed to prepare for what had been the unthinkable: terrorists targeting American classrooms.

Already attuned to the threat of violence from armed students following a spate of campus shootings in the late 1990s, schools suddenly were thrust into planning for threats that were far more vague, but even more terrifying.

The result of those tragic events, nearly a decade later, is a nation of schools that are, in large measure, safer and better prepared to cope with student gunmen, adult intruders, natural disasters, and terrorism, school security experts say.

State and federal programs have been set up since the Sept. 11 attacks to help pay for better security programs, and more schools are making it a priority to train teachers and staff members in what to do if a crisis occurs, according to those experts.

“There is no question that schools’ preparedness is a hundred times better now than it was eight or nine years ago,” said Michael S. Dorn, a former schools police chief in Georgia who now runs the Atlanta-based Safe Havens International Inc., a widely consulted, nonprofit school-safety organization.

Still, one weak spot for some districts, people in the security field say, is their disconnection from homeland-security officials and “first responders,” such as the police and fire departments in their local communities.

Locking Doors

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and subsequent incidents involving the spread of anthrax by mail, schools and districts took immediate precautions.

The headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District began sending regular “safety grams” to schools explaining what to do if deadly toxins were released or anthrax powder showed up in the mail.

The 3,100-student Waterford, Conn., district—located within 10 miles of the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant on Long Island—began parking school buses near school buildings for speedy evacuations.

And in Macomb County, Mich., near Detroit, administrators at one elementary school locked the main entrance and hired adult monitors to control who came through the doors.

But it was the shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., in 1999—not the events of “9/11”—that really sparked state and federal legislators to jump on the school-safety bandwagon, said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services.

“Columbine is what forced schools to catch up with decades of neglect in basic emergency preparedness and security efforts,” Mr. Trump said.

The Sept. 11 attacks, and later, the 2004 terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia, brought a new dimension and new urgency to that work, he said. More than 300 children and adult hostages were killed at Beslan’s Middle School No. 1 in September 2004 after a shootout erupted between the heavily armed Chechen hostage-takers, Russian security forces, and civilians.

Since those events, many districts have written new plans or updated aging emergency procedures, and some have conducted training exercises with teachers, staff members, and in some cases, students, said William Modzeleski, an associate assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

More schools also have put in place basic security measures, such as requiring children to wear identification badges and replacing locks on school buildings, said Mr. Modzeleski, who is second-in-command in the office of safe and drug-free schools. “With some school buildings that house 3,000 to 5,000 kids, these are very critical things,” he said.

Some districts have taken far more elaborate steps to ramp up security and prepare for disasters with new funding from the Education Department and state legislatures.

In 2003, the federal department began awarding grants—some as high as $1 million—to districts that wanted to create or revamp security and crisis-response programs, and, in most cases, needed outside expertise to help them do it.

A Higher Priority

Since then, more than 300 districts have received roughly $75 million in “emergency response and crisis management” discretionary grants, said Mr. Modzeleski, who oversees the grant program. “Many have spent the money on communications and buying the equipment necessary to be in touch with police, fire, and other first-responders if and when there is a crisis,” he said.

The department announced the latest round of school districts to be awarded grant money on Aug. 30. This time, 74 districts will share $23 million, down from $39 million that was distributed in 2003.

Last year, a federally funded program called Highway Watch, which trains drivers of both commercial and public trucks and buses to spot safety and security threats, was expanded to provide similar training for school bus drivers. The School Bus Watch program gives drivers a primer on terrorism and provides tips on how to prevent attacks on school buses.

States also have played a role in making school security and emergency readiness a bigger priority.

In the Clark County, Nev., school district, which includes Las Vegas, a new state law passed after Sept. 11, 2001, requiring all schools to have emergency plans, prompted the 292,000-student district to hire 15 staff members to manage crisis-response planning and training for more than 300 schools, said William P. Miller, the district’s director of threat evaluation and crisis response.

The district’s crisis team provided clear directions in an easy-to-read booklet for every classroom that outlines what teachers must do in an emergency, Mr. Miller said. The team also plans evacuation drills at school sites and evaluates how well teachers, staff members, and students do during the exercises.

Since the terrorist attacks five years ago, the district has added six new drills—two evacuations, two lockdowns, and two “shelter placements”—to the decades-old lineup of required fire drills, Mr. Miller said.

The most important change to the security program, Mr. Miller said, has been the district’s inclusion in all homeland-security discussions and planning with local, state, and federal law-enforcement authorities.

In New Jersey, districts are now required to keep a three-day supply of food and water in the event that school buildings must become shelters for children during emergencies.

“We check our supplies every three months to make sure the food is not expired and the water is fresh enough,” said Joseph M. Ferraina, the superintendent of the state’s 5,000-student Long Branch district. “It’s not always easy to keep this at the forefront, especially as we get farther away from September 11, and especially with all the other demands on us. But it’s critical.”

In Fort Wayne, Ind., the director of school security points to a state legislative initiative that allowed schools in every county to form school-safety commissions. In Allen County, where Fort Wayne is located, every school’s floor plan is now stored in a software program for emergency officials, who have assigned a countywide numbering system to all school buildings and doors.

“It sounds pretty basic, but it’s an important component of our preparedness,” said John H. Weicker, the security director for the 32,000-student Fort Wayne Community Schools.

In New York City, schools added a third evacuation location—far from the school site—to their emergency plans after the eight schools near the World Trade Center couldn’t use any of their two designated locations on the day of the attacks, said Gregory A. Thomas, the former school security chief in the city. He now directs a school-preparedness program at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

Gaps Remain

Despite the increased emphasis on security and better resources, experts agree that vast differences in preparedness remain across the nation’s nearly 15,000 school districts.

Money for school security remains tight, despite the federal grant program and efforts by some states to beef up funding.

Many schools and their leaders don’t have a relationship with local police, fire, and emergency officials, Mr. Thomas said.

“Schools need to be at the table in their community and state discussions about homeland security,” he said. “But we don’t make it easy for them when we don’t require law enforcement to include schools in their planning.”

Mr. Dorn of Safe Havens International Inc. said he knows of many districts where superintendents and other high-level administrators have not been trained to use the National Incident Management System, an emergency-response blueprint that outlines how local, state, and federal agencies should respond and work together during a crisis. The system was ordered two years ago by the federal Department of Homeland Security and its usage is required for any state or local government agency to receive federal homeland-security funding.

But, he said, some states—Indiana, Montana, and New York among them—have included school officials in training for the system.

“It’s an all-hazards system that will prepare schools to deal with anything, whether it’s a student whose heart has stopped, a tornado, a shooting, or an act of terrorism,” he said.

But perhaps the most intractable problem, Mr. Dorn said, is the tendency for schools to let emergency preparedness lag as more time passes since a major catastrophe such as the terrorist attacks.

“There is the tendency to overly focus on these issues in the wake of a tragedy like September 11,” he said. “And then eventually the problem becomes not sustaining a program of crisis-response preparedness in an ongoing way.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Since Attacks, Schools Said Safer, More Prepared

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