The Impact of Terrorism on School Safety Planning

The Sept. 11th terrorist attacks on America affected many school administrators in a manner similar to the school shooting incidents of recent years. School leaders have been asked to identify the steps they have taken to maintain adequate school security and crisis guidelines in the event of a high-profile crisis in their schools. Administrators have been forced to do a“reality check” of their school safety measures, while also reassuring school community members that they indeed have done their homework in this area.

Schools as Terrorist Targets?

Terrorists, when selecting their targets, attempt to achieve several goals:

    • attack a symbolic target that represents their opponents and/or something significant to their opponents,

    • send a strong message far beyond their actual target of violence,

    • produce mass fear,

    • alter the ways people live their lives, and

    • install a lack of confidence in the government.

Typical discussions of potential targets after 9/11 have focused on infrastructure areas such as utility plants, water reservoirs, transportation systems, banking and financial institutions, and similar entities.

These are logical areas to dedicate antiterrorism resources, and we cannot ignore our national infrastructure. However, terrorists do not typically follow the logical next steps anticipated by their victims. In fact, the element of surprise and catching the opponent off-guard are trademarks of well-trained terrorist organizations.

America must accept the possibility that our schools could also be targets of future terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda has reportedly made a direct threat to kill one million of America’s children. And history in the Middle East and Ireland shows us that schools and school buses with children aboard have been victims of terrorist violence abroad.

The threat has been made, and the tactics have been used elsewhere. Even children in the Middle East have been taught at the youngest of ages to hate Americans. Simultaneous cases of suicide bombings in multiple schools across our nation would, unfortunately, quite clearly meet the previously listed terrorist objectives.

History and thinking“outside of the box” should encourage us to acknowledge that American schools must be included in the list of potentially vulnerable targets. While speaking at an emergency management conference in Manhattan in May of 2002, former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, mentioned schools several times in his recommended list of agencies to include in emergency planning. It is critical for our public safety and school leaders to make sure that schools are active participants in homeland security planning and resource allocation.

Fear Management

Specific target selection by terrorists can be the result of identifying a “target of opportunity.” What distinguishes a target of opportunity from one that is not a target? The answer often rests with meaningful, reasonable security measures and preparedness planning steps. School-community awareness, security measures and crisis preparedness will also help counter fear.

School Responses on 9/11

The majority of educators and safety personnel did a superb job following the Sept. 11th attacks by mobilizing mental health support services, communicating appropriately and honestly with students and heightening security awareness while attempting to maintain a sense of normalcy in school operations. Yet some parents and media officials have expressed concern because schools typically do not have a “terrorism” tab on their existing crisis plans. Since terrorism can come in many forms, however, many schools already had the necessary crisis preparedness elements in their crisis guidelines.

For example, guidelines should already have included lockdown and evacuation procedures, alternative evacuation sites and family reunification procedures. Bomb threat protocols and procedures for dealing with suspicious devices should also already be in crisis plans, as should procedures for activating emergency communications, crisis counseling and handling hazardous chemicals. While they may not carry the label of terrorism, they are all potentially relevant to a terrorist-like crisis.

New Twists from Terrorism

Although many relevant crisis guideline elements should already have been in existing, the terrorist attacks raised some new issues for school safety officials.

Anthrax Scares

Legitimate anthrax scares, as well as hoax incidents, warrant some additional risk-reduction considerations to include.

    • Do not allow students to open school mail.

    • Limit the opening of mail to one staff member. Have this person open school mail in a room separate from open, main office areas.

    • Educate employees who open school mail on how to recognize suspicious packages.

    • Work with custodial and maintenance personnel to establish procedures for quickly shutting down heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

    • Review and practice lockdown and evacuation procedures.

    • Confer with hazardous materials teams and other safety officials to establish specific response protocols related to biological and chemical crises.

Firm, fair and consistent consequences, both administrative and criminal, should be sought including for hoaxes.

Cell Phones

Student use of cell phones in schools has become quite a hot issue. Parents and students tend to make the pitch to school officials that cell phones should be allowed based on school safety reasons. Unfortunately, parental and student convenience are also typically driving these requests.

Most arguments against students having cell phones focus on the probable instructional disruptions created by students who are focusing on phone calls and text messages rather than the class lesson. Emotional pleas to decision makers to allow cell phones focus on phones possibly helping improve safety during a crisis. Debates frequently, however, fail to focus on the adverse implications on safety including the following:

    • Students have used cell phones to call bomb threats into their school. The ability for police to trace these calls varies community to community.

    • The use of cell phones during a bomb threat presents a greater risk for potentially detonating an actual device as public safety officials typically advise school officials not to use cell phones, two-way radios or similar communications devices during such threats.

    • Regular school telephone systems become overloaded with calls in times of a crisis. While cell phones for school administrators and crisis team members are encouraged as a crisis management resource tool, it is highly probable that hundreds or thousands of students rushing to use their cell phones in a crisis would also overload the cell phone system and render it useless.

    • Widespread student cell phone use will likely prevent good rumor control measures and could result in expediting increased parental response to the school, thereby potentially inhibiting timely ingress and egress for emergency service responders.

At a minimum, debates should include good dialogue about the negative, and not just the positive, ways that cell phones can impact school safety.

Field Trips

Generally speaking, school officials will continue local field trips unless specific threat assessments suggest otherwise. National travel decisions should be based upon ongoing, specific threat assessments at the time of travel. International travel is discouraged during war and terrorist acts, at least until a time when our nation’s government and airline leaders get a better grip on airport and airline security, and better coordination of intelligence both within and outside of the United States.

All field trips should use safety plans that include adequate supervision, communications capabilities, emergency procedures and related measures.

“Heightened Security” Procedures

As national leaders call for “heightened security awareness,” school administrators have struggled to definite exactly what this means in terms of school preparedness. The following examples are examples of how schools can also heighten their security measures. These practices are good risk-reduction strategies not only for terrorism, but even more so on a day-to-day basis for safely operating our schools.

    • Provide special attention to perimeter security and access control issues. Have clearly defined perimeters, use designated parking areas, provide vehicle registration and enhance supervision of parking lots. Secure roof hatches and eliminate structural items that facilitate easy access to school roofs. Secure classroom windows at the end of the school day.

    • Reduce the number of doors accessible from the outside to one designated entrance. Stress the importance of staff greeting and challenging strangers, and reporting suspicious individuals.

    • Train custodial and maintenance personnel on identifying and managing suspicious items found on campus.

    • Stress the importance of adult supervision before, during and after school, both in common areas such as hallways, stairwells, restrooms, cafeterias and bus areas, as well as outside during recess, physical education classes, drop-off and dismissal.

    • Verify the identity of service personnel and vendors visiting the school, including those seeking access to utilities, alarm systems, communications systems, maintenance areas and related locations. Maintain detailed records of service and delivery personnel including the full names, organizations, vehicles and other identification information.

    • Secure access to utilities, boiler rooms and other maintenance/facilities operations locations. Prevent access to outside utility controls. Secure chemical and cleaning product storage areas.

    • Evaluate food and beverage service stock, storage and protection procedures. Determine if schools have adequate water, food and related supplies in the event that students and staff need to be detained at the school for an extended period of time beyond normal hours.

    • Assess school health and medical preparedness including nurse staffing. Maintain adequate emergency kits and medical supplies. Offer first aid/ first responder training to increase the number of individuals trained to assist in the event of medical emergencies.

    • Identify higher-risk facilities, organizations and potential terrorist targets in the community surrounding schools, and plan accordingly.

    • Provide crime prevention and crisis preparedness training to staff. Refine and test crisis preparedness guidelines.

Specific safety needs will vary and should be based upon a threat assessment and security evaluation of each school district’s individual needs.

Crisis Preparedness

In recent years, many schools created crisis guidelines. The problem is that too many schools created plans just for the sake of having plans. The content in a number of evaluated crisis plans suggests that many schools simply borrow from other sources without adapting guidelines to their own schools.

Perhaps most alarming is that plans are not tested. While full-scale drills are very educational, many schools cannot (or will not) invest the time and resources into these programs. If schools cannot do full scale drills, they should at least do tabletop exercises of school crisis guidelines as these typically require less time, manpower and resources.

Whether school violence, terrorism or a natural disaster, the lesson remains the same: Plan, prepare and practice. To do anything less is a disservice to students, teachers and school support personnel.

Kenneth S. Trump is president of National School Safety and Security Services , a national consulting firm specializing in school security and crisis preparedness training, security assessments and consulting services.