Time for a Calm and Measured Approach to the Threat of Terrorism

The horrific events of September 11, 2001, shocked us all to the core. These methodical and cold-blooded attacks struck deeply within our hearts and minds. We as a nation will be forever changed by these barbaric acts. Unfortunately, these events also have ominous implications for our schools. Having been extensively trained on counter–terrorism in the U.S. as well as in Israel, I have concerns about schools as potential targets. While we must avoid knee-jerk reactions and panic, we must be realistic. In other countries, terrorists have repeatedly targeted schools, school buses and places of worship to hit their victims hard where it hurts the most.

I will never forget the first time I saw a group of Israeli schoolchildren on a field trip. Standing close to the children was a young man in his early 20’s. He was wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt. The man was leaning casually against a wall with an M-16 rifle hanging from a shoulder sling. I then learned that in Israel, schoolchildren are not allowed to go on a field trip without an armed escort. This measure was implemented after two school groups were gunned down by ruthless terrorists.

Here we have had our own woes. In 1986, a couple armed with explosives and firearms took hostages in a Cokeville, Wyo., elementary school. Two militia types took over a small private school in Alabama in another incident. These cases, along with numerous incidents in other settings, should remind us that Middle Eastern groups are not the only terrorist threat. And, of course, we should remember that schools can be dramatically affected by nearby acts of terrorism, even if when are not the primary target.

These recent tragedies require a calm and pragmatic re-evaluation of all existing prevention, planning and response measures. If you have methodically worked to create a safe school environment over the past few years, you should have a solid platform to operate from. However, most schools across the nation do not have a comprehensive and effective safety strategy that fits the current threat level. And while this statement was true for traditional threats before the tragedies in New York and Washington, D.C., it is even more pertinent now.

If you have not taken steps to reduce the vulnerability of your facilities to bomb incidents, you are not properly prepared. If your emergency operations plans do not outline steps on handling a mass-casualty incident, you have work to do. If you have not addressed how a chemical, biological or radiological incident in your community would affect your school(s), you should begin to do so immediately. Most terrorism experts accurately predicted that our nation would see incidents like the Oklahoma City bombing and the first World Trade Center bombing. They have also stated that we are likely to see at least one large-scale incident involving chemical, biological or radiological aspects. This holds true, as we have already had one instance involving hundreds of people who were contaminated with a biological weapon, and another incident in a school involving a deadly toxin. If you are not prepared to meet threats of this level, you have clear reasons to do so now.

Other Areas of Focus

Review current access control measures. Review personal and vehicle access to facilities with public safety officials. Seek ways to make parking an unauthorized vehicle close to a building difficult, if possible. Consider measures that would reduce the ease of driving a vehicle containing explosives into a school.

Evaluate the types, numbers and capabilities of security and police personnel assigned to your schools. If you do not have a strong law enforcement partnership, your schools are as outdated as schools without computers.

Design schools for safety. The principles of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) should be in use in your schools.

Involve local public safety and emergency management officials in emergency operations planning. It is still common for schools simply to copy a plan, or to purchase a“plan in a can” without properly tailoring it with the assistance of local public safety officials. Also, make sure that school officials are integrated into the incident command structure.

Conduct a tactical site survey. Be sure to invite representatives from each area public safety agency.

Develop mutual aid agreements. All school systems and private schools should have formal mutual aid agreements to ensure they have the resources they need for a major incident.

Carefully review bomb threat procedures with public safety assistance. Make sure that you are not“setting yourself up for the kill” when you react to bomb threats. If you simply evacuate 500 feet to the same football field every time you receive a bomb threat, you are extremely vulnerable to a devastating attack targeting evacuees.

If even one major incident occurs in a U.S. school, at a school event or on a school bus, it will be difficult to calm the fears of parents, employees and students unless you already have measures in place. As we can see from the difficulty of reopening our airports, waiting to have contingency plans for dramatically enhanced safety measures can be disastrous. Use a calm and measured approach to prepare for threats that we all hope will never materialize.

Michael S. Dorn is the School Safety Specialist for the Office of the Governor — Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is one of the nation’s top school safety experts. His next book, School/Law Enforcement Partnerships: A Guide to Police Work in Schools, is due for publication soon.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.