Terrorism and Schools

I decided to allow time to pass after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, before writing this column. The occurrences of that day, as well as of the following months, created a sense of panic as people came to grips with the reality of terrorism on American soil. Although we have had many other acts of both domestic and international terrorism in our country, most people could not face the reality of the dangers posed by terrorism until that fateful day. And now that time has passed and people are settling back down, the time is appropriate to more directly address the threat of schools being selected as specific targets of terrorism.

I have included anti-terrorism measures in my training programs for many years. Prior to last fall, however, many attendees were skeptical when we covered such topics as target hardening HVAC systems, developing protocols for chemical and biological incidents and advanced bomb threat management techniques. Now that school and public safety officials have a heightened sense of awareness regarding the potential impact of terrorism on our schools, we are flooded with requests for our terrorism in schools training. So, it seems that the time is right to begin a frank discussion on this topic without adding to the hysteria that was running rampant for a while in our society.

First, we must accept the fact that our nation is in for a heightened threat of incidents of terrorism for the long haul. I routinely interact with a number of top experts in the fields of anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism, and not one of my colleagues feels that we are anywhere close to out of the woods. Most predict that we will in fact see an escalation in incidents of terrorism in our nation during the coming decades. The months of anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism training that I have attended in this country and in Israel tell me that these experts are on the mark. And my training and experience causes me to be concerned about our children as specific, as well as incidental, targets of terrorism.

While we have had two acts of domestic terrorism in schools in our country — one in a small private school and one in a rural elementary school, these incidents occurred many years ago. Both incidents involved right-wing home grown terrorists who were not very sophisticated or formally trained. Schools in other countries have not been quite so fortunate. When terrorists struck an elementary school in Ma’alot, Israel in 1974, twenty-two children were murdered. I will never forget noticing off-duty soldiers with their M-16 rifles casually slung on their shoulders protecting children as they visited landmarks and tourist attractions in Israel. The Israeli response to having two busloads of innocent school children ruthlessly gunned down by terrorists was to increase security rather than stop having field trips for their children. Children have been targeted in other nations as well. On May 10 of this year, a remote controlled bomb in Kaspiisk, Russia killed 36 people including 13 children during a parade. Schools, and most particularly elementary schools, have several of the traits that terrorists seek when they select targets: (1) they are soft targets; (2) school violence incidents garner considerable media attention; (3) acts of terrorism in schools grip parents with fear for their children’s safety, causing significant reactions across the country.

We must understand that as in Israel and other countries, we may be forced to rapidly modify the type and level of security in our schools even if a single incident takes place. If a busload of children were gunned down by a terrorist in a small town in Wisconsin next week, would it have an impact on your transportation system? If a high school football game in Texas were hit by a chemical attack, and dozens or even hundreds were killed, your game security measures would have to change quickly lest we capitulate, stop playing football and draw even more of the same types of attacks due to their success. If a murder/suicide bomber drove a sport utility vehicle loaded with 1,000 pounds of explosives through the front doors of an elementary school in a town that most of us have never heard of and killed several hundred children and teachers, I propose that you better have an idea of how to immediately increase security in your schools. Now is the time to discuss such concerns with local public safety officials. While the chances of any one individual school being a direct target of terrorism are remote, the impact on all would be dramatic and instantaneous. If our schools are slow to resume“business as usual” with enhanced security measures, we would more likely to see additional incidents.

I detailed in a column last fall, some measures that are appropriate anti-terrorism measures for schools in the post 9-11 world. For those who wish to remain cutting edge when it comes to school safety, it is appropriate to actively investigate your options in the event that a single act of terror changes the equation. While I do not predict that we will have a wave of terrorism in our schools, we should be braced for the very real possibility that terrorists will select schools as primary or secondary targets in the future.

Michael S. Dorn has been a full-time campus safety practitioner for 23 years. He has authored 14 books, lectures frequently across the nation and has provided consultation and technical assistance to more than 2,000 public safety agencies and learning institutions worldwide. He can be reached at .

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.