School Climate & Safety

Urban Districts Review Crisis-Response Plans In Wake of Terrorism

By Darcia Harris Bowman & Robert Johnston — October 03, 2001 3 min read
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Some of the country’s urban school districts are reviewing their crisis- management plans to ensure school officials know how to react in the wake of citywide disasters. The New York City school system, the nation’s largest district with 1.1 million students, and the Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston districts indicated last week that they were taking a fresh look at their safety procedures. Such scrutiny comes in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.

Reports of communications breakdowns and muddled evacuations during the Sept. 11 strikes on the World Trade Center prompted New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy to say at a press conference last week that he would set up a task force to review school safety procedures, The New York Times reported. District spokesmen were unable to provide further information last week.

One of the sites reportedly at the center of the concern in New York is Stuyvesant High School, which is just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.

Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents the city’s public school teachers, said there were delays and confusion over whether to remove students from the school and where to send them. Police eventually ordered an evacuation of the building.

Mr. Davis said the union has long argued that many schools do not have adequate emergency plans and are too reliant on rigid protocol. “There’s a top-down management style in the district’s emergency procedures,” he contended. “No one can take any action until they hear from the superintendent, and then through the assistant principals, and by then you can have a real problem.”

At the Sept. 24 press conference, Mr. Levy defended administrators’ decisions on the day of the disaster. “Dismissing children into the streets at that time was a decision that had to be taken with the guidance of police,” the chancellor said.

“When it became clear that [Stuyvesant] was not as safe as the streets further north,” students were evacuated, he added.

Emergency Drills Helped

Patrick Burke, the principal of New York’s High School of Economics and Finance, located a block from the World Trade Center, said he was grateful for the “shelter drills” he has to hold four times a year. The drills require the school’s 750 students to file into hallways and away from windows.

Mr. Burke, whose 10-story building remains closed because of broken windows and other damage from the attacks, said his staff credits the preparation for an orderly evacuation of students. The drills “were always seen as a carryover from the Cold War,” he said. “Suddenly, on September 11, there was a need for it. They really paid off. There was no panic. Students knew what to do, and that reduced the sense of fear.”

But the UFT’s Mr. Davis says that the school system’s requirement that school safety plans be reviewed annually is unevenly enforced, allowing potential glitches to go unnoticed.

“One school’s plans might be reviewed every year, while another’s is only looked at every three to five years,” Mr. Davis said. “So often, these plans are not complete, or they’re lax in some way, but we don’t learn that until we have a crisis.”

Reviews in Other Districts

Elsewhere, some of the nation’s largest school districts are revisiting their own safety and emergency procedures.

“District officials are in discussion about whether new emergency plans need to be established in the wake of the national tragedy,” Heather Browne, the spokeswoman for the 210,000- student Houston schools, said last week.

In Los Angeles, school district and community safety officials are on “heightened alert” as they comb through their emergency plans, which have always leaned heavily toward earthquake responses.

The review will take a hard look at how safety measures and emergency responses are communicated to the community, said Susan Cox, a spokeswoman for the 730,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

While Chicago school safety officials were already in the middle of reviewing their emergency procedures, the Sept. 11 incident underscored the importance of their efforts, said Andres Durbak, the director of the bureau of safety and security for the 433,000-student system.

One thing is certain, he said: Chicago will continue to give principals wide latitude in setting the tone for emergency responses. “Principals don’t sit around waiting for an order,” Mr. Durbak said. “They use their judgment, and we support them.”

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